You may have heard the sad news over the weekend that Kara Kennedy, the oldest child of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and mom of two teens, died at a health club at the age of 51. Apparently while Kara loved to exercise, aggressive treatment for lung cancer in 2003 took a toll on her health.
Cancer runs in my family, so it's something I worry about myself. And while we know that genetics play a role and exercise lowers the risk, a healthy diet is a big piece of the prevention puzzle. Certain foods contain compounds that are known to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, which is important for preventing early cancer cells from growing, reducing the risk that existing cancer cells will spread, and preventing the recurrence of cancer. Here are the five most important habits you can start today to fight this disease:
Eat at least 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of vegetables every single day. Include fruit in every breakfast and snack meal and veggies at each lunch and dinner meal. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that a low intake of fruits and vegetable contributes to five to 12 percent of all cancers and up to 30 percent of upper gastrointestinal cancers that are otherwise preventable. That's pretty powerful.
Eat more bean-based meals. In a Harvard study from the International Journal of Cancer 90,638 cancer free women between 26 and 46 years old were monitored for eight years. Those who ate beans or lentils two or more times per week had a 34 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women who ate them one or fewer times per month. Natural substances in beans appear to protect cells from damage that can lead to cancer. Serve them up in delicious ways, like a ginger stir fry with edamame, Moroccan lentil soup, vegetarian chili with red kidney beans, black bean tacos, and enjoy salads topped with marinated tofu.
Mix it up. Eating a wider variety of plant-based foods exposes your body to a broader spectrum of antioxidants and other natural cancer fighters. To expand your nutrition horizons, aim for five different colored fruits and veggies every day (blueberries, leafy greens, orange carrots, red peppers, cauliflower, and yup, white counts as a color), use a variety of antioxidant rich herbs and spices to season your food (basil, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, etc.), and switch up your whole grains by alternating brown and wild rice or whole wheat pasta with barley, quinoa and whole corn.
Drink green tea. The research on how powerful green tea is at preventing breast cancer is mixed, but one study found that among women under the age of 50, those who consumed three or more cups of green tea per day were 37 percent less likely to develop breast cancer compared to women who didn't drink tea. Green tea contains a number of antioxidants, and in laboratory studies it's been shown to slow or completely prevent cancer development in breast cells. Enjoy up to five cups of freshly brewed hot or iced tea, and if you need a sweetener add a splash of 100 percent fruit juice instead of sugar or the artificial stuff.
Choose dark chocolate (70 percent or darker). It's rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants. In my newest book, I recommend taking a dark chocolate escape by enjoying a few individually wrapped tasting squares of dark chocolate every day. But you can also melt some dark chocolate chunks, fold in any spices you like (from fresh grated ginger to green tea leaves, cinnamon or chili powder) and use as a dip for fresh fruit.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.