Can a plant-based diet be a key for cancer prevention?
"Research shows that personal health can be improved when you eat from a rainbow of colors each day," says Shayna Komar, LD, RD, a licensed and registered dietitian at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. "While it is possible you may be genetically susceptible to cancer, your daily food intake and lifestyle (exercise, not smoking, sleeping well, balancing stress) play a huge role in whether or not you get cancer."
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet means eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods in as close to their natural form as possible. Think: almonds, avocados or black beans, not frozen waffles, deli meat or granola bars.
It also means eating fewer foods that come from animal sources, such as dairy, meat and eggs. Komar recommends eating 80 percent colorful, whole foods like fruits, veggies, nuts and legumes, and 20 percent animal products like dairy, meat and eggs.
Why are plant-based foods so healthy?
A plant-based diet can help reduce inflammation, boost your immune system and decrease body weight, says Komar. Most plant-based foods contain little to no sodium or added sugar, and are full of heart-healthy fat and fiber.
"When you eat more plant-based foods, you are filling your body with phytochemicals and antioxidants that fight cancer cells. It's like putting your 'armor' on each day to protect your body," she explains. "When you do eat high sugar or high fat foods, they are replacing all of those great phytochemicals and antioxidants, and basically taking up valuable space in your diet, in turn making your immune system work over time, which leads to cancer-causing inflammation."
How to integrate a plant-based diet into your lifestyle
To incorporate a plant-based diet into your life, Komar recommends the following small, attainable goals to get started:
Make one meal a day completely plant-based, then follow the 80/20 rule for the rest of your meals. Start with an easier meal, like breakfast (oatmeal, nuts and fruit) or lunch (a salad, soup or veggie wrap). Gradually you can work your way up to meals that require a bit more preparation, such as family dinners.
Eat one salad a day with beans, nuts, seeds or legumes, not meat, for protein.
Find someone who can keep you accountable, such as a registered dietitian or a friend who is following a similar meal plan.
"Remember it takes a lifetime to develop habits, so don't think your eating will change overnight," she says. "Research shows it takes 21 days to develop a new habit, so at least commit to 21 days of trying more plant-based options."