Ovarian cancer affects around 22,500 American women each year, according to the American Cancer Society. When it comes to prevention, gynecologic cancers, in general, are difficult to target. These cancers are not necessarily caused by poor health habits such as smoking or excessive drinking, and it’s unclear whether making lifestyle changes can alter a potential diagnosis because your genetic history and environmental variables factor in strongly, as well.
The most important dietary factor in ovarian cancer prevention, medical experts say, is eating an overall balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight (research from the American Institute of Cancer Research also supports that keeping your weight in check and staying active can lower your risk). A combination of smart nutritional choices that are part of a healthy diet may also factor into prevention. Of course, there’s no one “miracle food” when it comes to the prevention of any cancers, unfortunately—otherwise, researchers would have already discovered a cure.
However, there are food and nutrient groups you can integrate into (or remove from) your diet to potentially reduce your risk of any cancer, including ovarian cancer.
Best Foods For Ovarian Cancer Prevention
Examples: Cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale
A recent Nutrition and Cancer study found that cruciferous vegetables are thought to lower women’s ovarian cancer risk. “Cruciferous veggies offer cancer-preventing nutrients in general—fruits and vegetables like these that are high in phytonutrients help to build and repair damaged cells,” explains Jill Bice, MS, RD, a nutritionist at the University of Chicago Medicine’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. Consuming cruciferous veggies may also help to maintain a healthy weight: one of the few ovarian cancer risk factors, according to the American Cancer Society.
But just to reiterate, there’s no such thing as miracle food when it comes to cancer prevention. “The healthiest diet, including for reducing risk of cancer, is one that is rich in colorful fruits and vegetables—at least four to five servings a day—which includes, but is not limited to cruciferous vegetables,” adds Shannon MacLaughlan David, MD, MS, Director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. “This diet should be balanced by lean proteins and healthy fats, like the omega-3s in fish, and olive oil, which is rich in beneficial phenols, phytosterols, and monounsaturated free fatty acids.”
Speaking of omega-3s, a recent Gynecologic Oncology study done on human cells found that one omega-3 fatty acid found only in fish, DHA, inhibits ovarian cancer growth. More research and clinical trials still need to be done to determine whether this translates from a lab setting to ovarian cancer patients.
Foods containing selenium
Examples: Tuna, shrimp, Brazil nuts, turkey, eggs, baked beans
Research published in BMC Cancer suggests that foods that contain the mineral selenium could potentially decrease ovarian cancer risk. This makes sense because it acts as an antioxidant in the body, reducing levels of cell-damaging free radicals. It can be found in high protein foods—lean meats, fish, beans, and certain nuts.
Foods containing lignans
Examples: Flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, beans, berries, and whole grains like rye, oats, and barley
Older research published in The Journal of Nutrition has suggested that lignans, polyphenols found in plant foods, could be beneficial hormonally to women in preventing ovarian cancer. While the research is inconclusive, a diet high in whole foods—and especially plants—is key. “Lignans are important because they have omega-3 fatty acids, which can help in cancer prevention, and fiber, which can help in weight maintenance,” says Bice.
Minimally-processed soy foods
Examples: Edamame, tempeh, miso, and tofu
Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, nutritionist at Daily Harvest shares that some forms of soy, like soybean oil, can be found in highly-processed foods and can lead to increase risks of cancer, population studies in Asia show that minimally-processed soy foods may slow ovarian cancer cell growth. Epidemiological and experimental studies have found that an active compound found in soy foods, genistein, may act as a chemopreventive or therapeutic agent against ovarian cancer. But while clinical trials are now being performed to identify the role of genistein as an anticancer agent, there is currently not enough evidence of its link to ovarian cancer prevention. Shapiro clarifies that the healthiest forms of soy are Organic, Non-GMO foods like edamame or tempeh.
Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables
Examples: Apples, broccoli, blueberries, strawberries, peppers
It’s no secret that any foods containing antioxidants can be cancer-fighting superfoods. “Eating plants, in a wide variety of colors, is the best way to get antioxidants like flavonoids,” says Shapiro. “Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (up to 10 servings a day—and fill at least half your plate with veggies!) can help to fight cancers and illnesses thanks to their antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals,” she adds.
Note that while observational human studies have yielded mixed results in connecting antioxidant supplementation to a reduced risk of cancer, so far, research that has specifically looked at ovarian cancer prevention has not found enough evidence to support that antioxidant consumption reduced risk of ovarian cancer.
Foods You Should Avoid On An Ovarian Cancer Diet
Limit: foods with dietary acrylamide
Examples: Potato chips, French fries, certain processed cereals and snacks
Dietary acrylamide is a chemical by-product of cooking certain starches at high temperatures. It’s found in heavily processed and fried foods. Multiple sources, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer, have deemed dietary acrylamide to be a “probable carcinogen” (a 2007 and 2010 study linked it to a possible higher risk of ovarian cancer, but this has not been proven with further research). The American Cancer Society explains that the FDA recommends the food industry to reduce the amount of acrylamide in foods, but there is no official regulation.
These foods that tend to contain acrylamide, though, probably aren’t included in a balanced, heavily-plant-based, cancer-preventing diet. “If you’re following a healthy diet as described above, you’re already minimizing foods that are high in starchy carbs and animal fats, which are pro-inflammatory foods,” Dr. MacLaughlan David says.
Limit: animal products
Examples: Beef, processed meats like salami, butter
Older studies have suggested that animal products, in general, should be limited when it comes to ovarian cancer prevention, and this may still ring true, within reason. “A more plant-based diet is what’s recommended to lower cancer risk—this doesn’t mean that you have to go vegetarian or vegan completely, though,” Bice says, although it is a good reason to go vegan. “Red meats and processed meats are linked to cancers such as colorectal cancer, so it’s better to choose fish, and lean meats like turkey and chicken,” she adds.
Examples: Candy, soda, cookies, bottled drinks, and yogurts with added sugars
Scientists are still studying the exact risk factors associated with sugary foods and beverages and ovarian cancer, as shown by a BMC Cancer study, but it’s definite that these processed foods should not be part of an anti-inflammatory, cancer-fighting diet. “I would recommend staying away from foods that cause inflammation and the big one here is sugar. Limit the amount of packaged foods you eat and shop the perimeter of the store,” Shapiro suggests.
RELATED: No-sugar-added recipes you’ll actually look forward to eating.
Limit: alcohol intake
Examples: Hard liquor, beer, sugary mixed drinks
While one glass of wine could be a source of heart-healthy, cancer-fighting antioxidants like polyphenols, a Journal of Cardiovascular Disease Research study show, much more than that on a daily basis isn’t good for cancer prevention in general. “The AICR (American Institute for Cancer Research) states that any alcohol increases risk of cancers, but if you’re going to have it, the safe serving size for women is one drink, which is five ounces of table wine per day,” Bice says.
Limit: saturated and trans fats
Examples: Processed, sugary snacks, processed meats, margarine
A study that appeared in the journal Oncotarget connected high dietary fat intake to ovarian cancer. Specifically, the worst fats to consume are saturated fats and trans fats. These fats are most commonly found in foods that are heavily processed or fried—which don’t coincide with a healthy, mostly plant-based diet.
The bottom line: What goes along with a balanced diet is healthy lifestyle choices. “Maintaining a healthy weight (which also means exercise!) improves health and reduces risks of all sorts of diseases, including cancer, and including ovarian cancer,” Dr. MacLaughlan David says.
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