The following post is written by Prerna Uppal, MS, RD, CDE

Background on Cancer

My passion for wellness and disease prevention always inspired me to look for ways to live well, not just physically, but emotionally, mentally and spiritually too.  This desire to understand how we must use a holistic approach to be in optimal health, led me to question the cause of chronic diseases; As a registered dietitian, I naturally delved deeper into the science of foods and innately believed that foods have the power to heal. They play a critical role in preventing diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

While pursuing my graduate studies, I took a course on Nutrition and Cancer, which looked deeply into the relationship between diet and disease.  I learned that cancer proceeds through three stages: initiation, promotion and progression. My professor used the following analogy to describe these steps: “The cancer process is similar to planting a lawn. Initiation is when you put seeds in the soil, promotion is when the grass starts to grow and progression is when the grass gets completely out of control, invading the driveway, the shrubbery and the sidewalk”.  Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

In the initiation step, the DNA gets damaged by environmental toxins (called carcinogens) and nutrient deficiencies. I believe good nutrition can support DNA repair.

Initiation: Planting the Seeds (of cancer)
Initiation: Planting the Seeds (of cancer)

The next step is promotion. This stage is reversible and depends on whether the cancer cells are being given the right conditions to thrive in. This is where the healing power of nutrition comes in- some nutrients will feed cancer growth while others will slow it down or stop it altogether.

Promotion: Grass (cancer) starting to grow
Promotion: Grass (cancer) starting to grow

The final stage is progression or metastasis. Unfortunately, this final stage of cancer, more often than not, results in death. Nevertheless, I am certain that while undergoing pharmacological treatments at this stage to treat the cancer, using a holistic approach to also treat the patient, can have life changing effects. We have all heard and read of some miraculous recoveries of terminally ill cancer patients who received a bleak prognosis and then had their cancer go into complete remission.

Progression: Grass (cancer) invasion

Anti-cancer Nutrition and Lifestyle Shifts

Clearly, nutrition plays a key role in the initiation and promotion phases, which are reversible! Let’s take a closer look as to which foods feed cancer, which slow it down, and possibly even reverse it.  As you focus on eating and living right, don’t forget to focus on your mental, emotional and spiritual health too- the holistic approach. It addresses the powerful connection between our mind and body and one that should not be underestimated!  Being calm, joyful, happy, positive does indeed boost our immune system. Long term practitioners of meditation, mantra chanting and healing breath work have proven this.

There is no dearth of information in reputable scientific journals proving that diet is closely linked to disease. We know that both heart disease and prediabetes can be reversed, even its progression to Type 2 diabetes.  Both Dr. Ron and I, routinely see our diabetic patients go off medications after implementing our recommendations. In our consult practice at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, we see patients who are at high risk not only for heart disease and diabetes but for cancer as well.  As this post explains, the same lifestyle risks that raise heart attack risk, are responsible for raising cancer risk as well.

I agree with the belief that a certain environment when created in the body enables cancer cells to thrive and grow. Thus, preventing this cancer-causing environment would be a way to avoid cancer.  Cancer can be prevented with healthful diet and lifestyle changes. What are some of these factors that create an environment to “promote” cancer?

1. A nutrient depleted diet: Eating mostly cooked, processed and junk foods is detrimental to our health as they are devoid of nutrients. Nutritional deficiencies wreak havoc with our health and cause disturbances in various metabolic pathways, thus setting the stage for disease.

What should we do instead?

Eat a diet rich in antioxidants such as Vit A, C, E from fruits and vegetables, in particular cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts and kale. Combine and include a variety of vegetables to maximize their cumulative health benefits.

2. An acidic environment: Acidity lowers the pH and creates an oxygen depleted environment which is conducive for the growth of cancer cells.

What should we do instead?

Limit intake of sugar, excessive meat and processed, refined foods as they are acid-forming. Choose more alkaline foods.

3. Pro-inflammatory foods: Hydrogenated trans fats, and vegetable and seed oils such as sunflower, safflower, canola, corn and soybean oils create a dietary imbalance in our omega-6 : omega-3 ratio and lead to inflammation.

What should we do instead?

Avoid trans fats and margarine. Choose healthy omega-3’s and MUFAs (Monounsaturated Fatty Acids) like olive oil. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet that includes turmeric, ginger, green tea, oregano, parsley and celery.

4. Poor gut health: Overuse of antibiotics, hybridized grains,  and depleted soil conditions have brought on food allergies and intolerances, altered the natural balance of bacteria in our gut and have had a devastating effect on our immune systems, causing inflammation, which is one of the root underlying causes of cancer and most chronic health condtions.

What should we do instead?

Eat foods rich in prebiotics, probiotics (fermented foods, etc.) and non-GMO grains.  We’ll cover these in more detail in a future post.

5. Sedentary lifestyles: As Dr. Ron says in his post, “prolonged sitting is a lifestyle carcinogen”. Physical inactivity or sedentary lifestyles will contribute to a higher cancer risk.  Read this post to learn more.

What should we do instead?

Plain and simple, just move!  Be sure to spend time outdoors in the sun to get adequate vitamin D which also helps ease inflammation.

6. An agitated and stressed mind: Stress suppresses our immune system and interferes with the body’s ability to fight infection.

What should we do instead?

We need to learn to quiet our minds so we can tap into the healing potential within us.

7. Sleep disturbances: Also negatively impact our immune system and play a role in promoting cancer.

What should we do instead?

Establish good sleeping habits and have a calming routine before bedtime to induce sound sleep.

So, from a nutritional standpoint, how do we prevent cancer?  I love the brevity with which Michael Pollan sums it up:

Eating more organic vegetables and fruits is the single most important thing you can do to ward off cancer!  I am a firm believer in the healing power of foods and so as we endeavor to eat “mostly plants”, enriching our diets with powerful and immune-boosting nutrients, it is important to keep in mind that overcooking vegetables destroys all these potent cancer-fighting vitamins and minerals.

Being South Asian myself, I too am guilty of occasionally overcooking vegetables often beyond recognition! To lower our risk for cancer, we must shift our thinking on how we incorporate vegetables in our diets to maximize their nutrient boosting potential and utilize their amazing cancer preventive benefits.

How to Eat Plants to Reduce Cancer Risk

1. Include raw and living fruits and vegetables

Plants in the raw state are laden with enzymes which enable our immune and metabolic systems to work better, thus increasing our energy. Overcooking destroys these vital enzymes as well as certain vitamins which are heat sensitive, such as vitamins A and C.  Make sure your plate is covered with raw and living plants! The token two to three pieces of cucumber and tomato which are considered “salads” in our South Asian diets barely make a dent in meeting our need for these nutrients.

2.  Make alkaline foods your dietary mainstay

I am referring here to leafy greens and the miraculous healer, chlorophyll! When we eat a diet high in chlorophyll (leafy greens and raw fruits and vegetables), we are arming ourselves with antioxidants–nutrients that counteract harmful free radicals. In addition, these foods ease inflammatory responses in our body.

Keep in mind, the palak paneer and sarson ka saag in South Asian indian dishes with greens that have been overcooked, have lost most of their potent chlorophyll.  East Asian stir-fry dishes, especially from restaurants, are often cooked in poor quality vegetable oils that promote inflammation, which is a major contributor to cancer.  Try not to overcook the greens in these and other recipes and use high quality cooking fats (coconut oil, ghee, etc.). Include more raw greens and give nature a chance to work its miracle!

3. Use fresh, organic herbs and spices

Do not underestimate the medicinal value of using herbs and spices in your cooking.  Turmeric in particular, due to its active ingredient curcumin, has powerful anti-cancer properties which are the subject of multiple ongoing clinical studies.  We shall be discussing turmeric in a future post.  Buy organic turmeric to avoid contaminants such as lead, which we discussed in detail here.


  • A strong and  healthy immune system is key to preventing and reversing cancer. Eating more organic vegetables and fruits is the single most important thing you can do to ward off cancer. Include a hefty serving of organic raw foods, sprouted seeds and nuts, to supply your body with vital enzymes which are critical for a healthy immune system.
  • Choose organic, grass-fed animal products.
  • White bread and baked goods such as doughnuts, pop tarts that often contain trans fats, meat, non-organic dairy, sugars and processed foods are acidic and put a tremendous strain on the body by causing inflammation and depressing our immune system.
  • Cooked foods such as breads, meat, non-organic dairy, sugars and processed foods are acidic and put a tremendous strain on the body by causing inflammation and depressing our immune system.
  • Choose not only an anti-inflammatory diet but live an anti-inflammatory lifestyle to experience the body’s healing power and strengthen your immune system.
  • Foods act synergistically to offer their cancer protective benefits. When we combine healthy foods, we get a potent cocktail of cancer fighting nutrients.

I have a deep conviction in the body’s ability to heal itself and firmly believe that given the right environment, our bodies will be well equipped to ward off cancer.

Now for an immune-boosting recipe to get you started!

Recipe from Prerna’s Kitchen

Baked Kale Crisps


2 bunches of organic kale

2 cloves garlic- minced

1 tsp turmeric powder

½ tsp black pepper

½ tsp paprika

1 Tbsp virgin coconut oil

Salt to taste


  1. Separate the leaves from the center stalk
  2. Tear into large pieces
  3. Add the coconut oil and minced garlic and massage for a minute
  4. Add the turmeric, black pepper, paprika and salt. Massage again.
  5. Arrange the kale in a single layer on a baking tray lined with wax paper and bake at 300F for 15 minutes

Prerna Uppal, MS, RD, CDE

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