What Are the Best Foods to Fight Cancer? Here’s What’s in a Cancer Dietitian’s Fridge
A dietitian who works to help cancer patients heal offers a glimpse inside her kitchen at the 17 foods that are consistently on her grocery list.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Eat the rainbow.” (Even at Halloween, that’s not a plug for Skittles!) This nutrition rule of thumb means it’s wise to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, ideally that vary in color, to get a range of important nutrients—as Dr. Renee Stubbins, PhD, an oncology dietitian at Houston Methodist Neal Cancer Center, explains: “Having a variety of fruits and vegetables on hand provides your body with a broad range of antioxidant protection.” Antioxidants are compounds that protect cells from damage and have been shown to protect the body from cancer, and “that variety helps protect our bodies from disease,” Dr. Stubbins says.
Filling your belly with more plants can also be a solid way to trim down, as 2022 CDC data points out that people who are overweight or obese are at greater risk for these 13 types of cancers:
- Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus
- Breast cancer (in post-menopausal women, the CDC specifies)
- Colon and rectal cancers
- Uteran cancer
- Upper stomach
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Thyroid cancer
- Meningioma (which the CDC explains is a type of brain cancer)
- Multiple myeloma, a cancer affecting the blood, bones, immune system, and more.
Eating the rainbow is a worthy goal…but if it feels like carving out the space in your week to meal-plan is a task in itself, Dr. Stubbins has created a shortcut by opening her fridge for The Healthy @Reader’s Digest to reveal shat she herself stocks up on to stay well.
Dr. Stubbins also shares that she often points her patients to the American Institute of Cancer Research for healthy food recommendations that can help lower your risk for different types of cancer. We consulted the AICR’s website for further explanation of this cancer dietitian’s grocery recommendations.
No surprise they’re first on the list, berries are famously high in antioxidants. Blueberries often get all the cancer-fighting praise, but most any berry you eat packs a powerfully nutritious punch.
An easy way to keep them in reach? “Typically, I always have frozen berries for smoothies and yogurt bowls,” Dr. Stubbins says.
They’re the most popular fruit in America, and not just because they’re so easy to grab. In one 2021 study in the peer-reviewed Frontiers in Oncology, the anticancer properties in bananas showed promise for creating cancer prevention drugs.
Dr. Stubbins says she loves to keep bananas on hand for smoothies.
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These citrusy fruits are bright in more ways than one: eating them delivers plenty of vitamin C, flavonoids, and—who knew?!—dietary fiber to your diet.
There is substantial research that shows dietary fiber in foods can help lower the risk of colorectal cancer.
Especially in the fall, apples and pears are some of the season’s stars. And even in colder climates during autumn, farmers markets can be a ripe place to stock up since Dr. Stubbins says that’s where fresh, seasonal fruit “is easier found” than at big-box supermarkets.
Crunchy and sweet, apples have both polyphenol compounds and dietary fiber, which work with microbes in your gut to potentially lower the chance of cancer. Some studies have shown that eating apples could reduce the chances of estrogen receptor negative (ER-), a type of breast cancer.
Meanwhile, pears have vitamin C, potassium and are an excellent source of fiber. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, the recommendation for a healthy diet is to consume 30 grams of dietary fiber daily to reduce risk for cancer
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Tomatoes are packed with vitamin C and A as well as beta-carotene and lycopene, a type of carotenoid. One study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition spanned 20 years to show that eating foods rich in carotenoids may decrease the risk of breast cancer. (Lycopene has also been shown to reduce the risk of prostate cancer.)
Dr. Stubbins says she loves eating tomatoes in a caprese salad. (This classic recipe comes courtesy of our sibling site, Taste of Home.)
Winter squashes are another carotenoid-rich category, while delivering beta-carotene and vitamin C. In a 2020 review in Antioxidants, foods with carotenoids were believed to help lower the risk of breast cancer (though the authors stated that more research is needed).
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Dr. Stubbins says for her, bell peppers are “always on hand for adding to lunches to dip in hummus.” Bell peppers are a good source of carotenoids and beta-carotene, as well as vitamin C and potassium.
Speaking of hummus, chickpeas are the base for the Middle Eastern dip. A type of legume, chickpeas have folate, protein and dietary fiber, which makes you feel full longer.
We all need protein—and recent studies have shown that opting for a lean protein, like chicken, is a healthier pick than processed meats for lowering the risk of colorectal, esophageal and lung cancer.
To help with meal prep, Dr. Stubbins says, “I will marinate usually on Sunday and then cook later in the week.”
This dark, leafy green has carotenoids and antioxidants, helping the body prevent free radicals from harming DNA that could cause cancer. (Kale also contains vitamin C, folate, calcium, dietary fiber and beta-carotene.)
Dr. Stubbins suggests there’s no harm in taking a shortcut when it comes to working more kale into your diet. “I buy it already washed and prepped [because] it’s easier to add to soups or make a quick salad,” she says.
Once again, Dr. Stubbins goes for pre-washed, bagged spinach—”[It’s] easier to add to smoothies or make a quick salad,” she says.
Spinach is loaded with vitamin C, fiber and beta-carotene and may have phytochemicals that can protect against cancer.
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Cruciferous vegetables—think those leafy veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower—contain folate, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and dietary fiber. (Fun fact: this family of vegetables is called “cruciferous” from Latin, thanks to the fact that they’re picked from the stem and then branch out, vaguely resembling a cross.)
For one, Brussels sprouts are loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants and protect the body from free radicals. And broccoli contains sulforaphane, a compound that one 2017 nutritional biochemistry study found may protect against prostate cancer, due to the minimizing of the long noncoding RNAs preventing cancerous cells from spreading. Additionally, a study published in Nutrition and Cancer found that cruciferous vegetables may protect against ovarian cancer.
Dr. Stubbins shared one of her favorite ways to use cruciferous vegetables: “I love making cabbage steaks or stir-fry with cabbage [and other cruciferous vegetables],” she says.
Celery, Carrots, and Onions
Carrots, celery and onions are staple ingredients for Dr. Stubbins, who says, “I always have [them] on hand for soups.” (‘Tis the season—check out 5 Cozy, Simple Homemade Soup Recipes You Can Make Now.)
Carrots are loaded with beta-carotene, which contributes to their bright orange color, as well as carotenoids and phytochemicals. Research has shown that non-starchy fruits and vegetables might actually reduce the risk of different cancers, including mouth, lung, esophageal, colorectal, and stomach cancers.
Celery contains beta-carotene, vitamin C and a variety of antioxidants.
Onions are part of the allium family and contain antioxidants. A 2019 Phytotherapy Research review suggested that 16 types of alliums contain anti-cancer properties.
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These mahogany-skinned potatoes with bright orange flesh (though sometimes purple or white), are a good source of beta-carotene and fiber. They also have antioxidants that help the body fight free radicals.
Dr. Stubbins’ favorite way to eat sweet potatoes is when they’re roasted.
In addition to their famed protein content, eggs contain significant amounts of choline—an essential nutrient that supports metabolism, nerve function, and more. Some research suggests choline lowers cancer risk by keeping DNA healthy, though more studies are needed.
Dr. Stubbins has a friend who raises chickens, so she says she’s a fan of pasture-raised eggs. “I prefer the taste,” she says. That’s a good friend indeed.
Plain Greek Yogurt
A 2021 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that dairy foods high in calcium may help lower the risk for breast cancer. Dr. Stubbins says, “I use plain Greek yogurt for breakfast, smoothies and as a replacement for sour cream in recipes.”
Similar to the other calcium-rich foods that recent research suggests may help fend off breast cancer, Dr. Stubbins says cheese is one of her go-to snacks—for herself, or if she needs an easy appetizer for visitors.
Dr. Renee Stubbins, PhD, oncology dietitian at Houston Methodist Neal Cancer Center.
Frontiers in Oncology: "Cancer Preventive and Therapeutic Potential of Banana and Its Bioactive Constituents: A Systematic, Comprehensive, and Mechanistic Review."
Nutr Cancer. "Usual Cruciferous Vegetable Consumption and Ovarian Cancer: A Case-Control Study."
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Plasma carotenoids and risk of breast cancer over 20 y of follow-up."
Phytotherapy Review. "Allium vegetables for possible future of cancer treatment."
Antioxidants. "The Benefits and Risks of Certain Dietary Carotenoids that Exhibit both Anti- and Pro-Oxidative Mechanisms—A Comprehensive Review."
The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. "Long noncoding RNAs and sulforaphane: a target for chemoprevention and suppression of prostate cancer."
American Institute for Cancer Research: "Facts on Fiber and Whole Grains"
National Institute of Health. Calcium.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Dairy foods, calcium, and risk of breast cancer overall and for subtypes defined by estrogen receptor status: a pooled analysis of 21 cohort studies."
UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Health: "Animal Protein and Cancer Risk."