In a study comparing diet approaches, this one came out on top.
Cancer is a complex disease, and it can be caused by a number of factors. Some of these factors are out of our hands, such as exposure to pollution or radiation. However, researchers have increasingly found that humans have more power over this fate than was once thought.
A study released in August 2018 put this theory to the test. Researchers in France noted that a variety of organizations around the world have released nutritional and lifestyle guidelines for optimal health. The researchers set out to find which nutritional approach best helped prevent different types of cancer, and they followed over 41,000 participants over an eight-year period.
The researchers tracked the eating habits of the participants and scored them based on the guidelines of each of the following nutritional approaches:
The Alternate Healthy Eating Index 2010 (AHEI-2010): This measure of diet quality is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It emphasizes increasing intake of fruits and vegetables, limiting refined grains and other empty calories, increasing intake of low-fat dairy, reducing saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, and getting a variety of lean protein sources.
The World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) score: These international organizations collaborated to release guidelines that emphasize plant-based eating, low alcohol intake, low intake of energy-dense foods (like sweets and oils), and physical activity.
The Mediterranean diet (MEDI-LITE): This diet is based on the traditional eating habits of cultures surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It is a plant-rich diet that emphasizes fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and herbs and spices. Learn more about the Mediterranean diet here.
The French National Nutrition Health Program-Guideline Score (PNNS-GS): This program is a French government initiative to help curb the growing number of chronic illnesses in the country. The approach emphasizes increasing fruit and vegetable intake, reducing sodium, increasing calcium, improving iron and folate deficiency, and increasing physical activity.
Each index has a score system that awards points for following guidelines and subtracts points for “violations.” After scoring the participants’ diets, the researchers evaluated how well the different diet recommendations helped prevent cancer incidence.
What Diets Help Reduce Risk of Cancer?
For starters, *all* of the nutritional approaches helped reduce cancer risk among the participants. The more the participants adhered to any particular recommendations, the lower their cancer risk. This suggests that following general nutritional guidelines—nothing fancy or extreme—can help prevent cancer.
But one diet did slightly better than the rest: The WCRF/AICR guidelines (i.e. a plant-based diet).
The plant-based diet approach reduced overall cancer risk among participants by 12 percent. It also reduced breast cancer risk by 14 percent and prostate cancer by 12 percent.
Although many of the nutrition approaches emphasize getting more plant-based foods (e.g. fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains), the WCRF/AICR index is unique in that it penalizes alcohol intake and animal foods (e.g. meat, dairy, and eggs) more harshly.
The French study is not the first to recognize the cancer-preventing potential of the plant-centric WCRF/AICR approach. A study of over 380,000 participants found that those who followed the guidelines the best had an 18 percent lower risk of cancer and a 34 percent lower risk of early death. The diet seemed to be especially helpful against cancers of the colon and rectum, stomach, esophagus, breast, lung, endometrial, kidney, and liver.
Need tips on following a plant-based diet?
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Davis C, Bryan J, Hodgson J, Murphy K. Definition of the Mediterranean diet: a literature review. Nutrients. 2015 Nov;7(11):9139-53.
French National Nutrition and Health Program 2011-2015. French Ministry of Health. (Accessed on December 13, 2018 at https://solidarites-sante.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/PNNS_UK_INDD_V2.pdf.)
Guenther PM, Casavale KO, Kirkpatrick SI, Reedy J, Hiza HAB, Kuczynski KJ, Kahle LL, Drebs-Smith SM. Update of the Healthy Eating Index: HEI-2010. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2013 Apr;113(4).
Known and probable human carcinogens. American Cancer Society, 2016. (Accessed on December 13, 2018 at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/general-info/known-and-probable-human-carcinogens.html.)
Lavalette C, Adjibade M, Srour B, Sellem L, Fiolet T, Hercberg S, et al. Cancer-specific and general nutritional scores and cancer risk: results from the prospective NutriNet-Sante cohort. Cancer Res;78(15);4427-35.
Specialized diet gets high marks for preventing cancer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Health Publishing, 2018. (Accessed on December 13, 2018 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/cancer/specialized-diet-gets-high-marks-for-preventing-cancer.)
World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: a global perspective. Washington, DC: AICR, 2007. Chapter 12. (Accessed on December 13, 2018 at http://www.aicr.org/assets/docs/pdf/reports/Second_Expert_Report.pdf.)