The Anti-Cancer Diet

The anti-cancer diet Dr. David Servan-Schreiber presents in his book Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life resembles the Mediterranean diet [1] with one important difference: it puts great emphasis on blood sugar control. This is because sugar feeds and stimulates the growth of cancer cells. In 1923, Otto Warburg studied cancer cells and discovered "the Warburg Effect," which is that cancer cells consume sugar voraciously and metabolize it without oxygen. The idea then was to treat cancer by starving the cancer cells. With the discovery of DNA in 1953, all attention was turned to mutations and other genetic aspects of cancer cells. We are now taking a step in the right direction by returning to a natural dietary way to control cancer. [2]

The most important principle of the anti-cancer diet is control of your blood sugar and insulin levels. This means eating little or no sugar or other refined sweeteners and few or no baked goods made of mostly white flour. For those on allergy or gluten-free diets, baked goods made with brown rice flour are as bad as those made with white flour for raising your blood sugar and insulin levels. Traditional long-fermemted sourdough breads and breads made with whole grain flour plus nuts, seeds and whole grains [3] are advised because they have a lower glycemic index. [4] For an explanation of and more information about the glycemic index, click here.

Eliminating sugar and corn syrup is the most important change a cancer patient can make because sugar is the preferred food of cancer cells. High fructose corn syrup is even worse than sugar, and it is found in most processed foods, which should be avoided. Stevia is the best substitute for sugar. Dr. Servan-Schreiber also allows lower glycemic index nutritive sweeteners such as agave, coconut sugar, and acacia or orange blossom honey to be used occasionally in moderation. [5]

Anything you eat that causes the release of a large amount of insulin also provokes the release of insulin-like growth factor (IGF) which stimulates the growth of cancer cells. [6] Before I learned this, I'd eat a large bunch of grapes for a snack without eating protein at the same time to balance the carbohydrate. After the cancer diagnosis, I realized how I had been raising my insulin level, so I switched to fruits that provoke very little release of insulin, such as cherries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, plums, and apples. I eat them in moderate quantities, usually with nuts, or eat only nuts for a snack.

The second principle of the anti-cancer diet is to eat only healthy fats. Hydrogenated fats should be completely avoided. Olive oil, canola oil, and nut oils are good oils that tone down inflammation. Butter and cheese from free-range animals are also good choices. [7]

Eat meat that has a healthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Corn and soy-fed meat and poultry are very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which promote inflammation and stimulate the growth of cancer cells. Meat from free-range raised animals is the meat of choice. Be aware that not all organic meat is free-range. Game meat is an excellent choice [8] as is wild-caught fish.

The third principle of the anti-cancer diet is to eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables including highly-colored produce. My oncologist, who is far above her peers on prevention, tells me at every visit that the more fruits and vegetables I eat, the less chance I have of a recurrence. She cites studies about foods that improve cancer outcomes but says "not so much" benefit comes from supplements. A six-year study published in the British Journal of Cancer showed that breast cancer patients who consumed many fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids lived longer than those who consumed few [9]

Most fruits and vegetables can be eaten cooked or raw. However, cooking with oil is essential for making the anti-cancer lycopenes in tomatoes available for our use. Cabbage family vegetables are most helpful eaten raw. Freezing preserves the anti-cancer substances in foods, so enjoy frozen berries when fresh berries are not in season or are more expensive. Although organic is ideal, the positive effects of the anti-cancer agents in the foods overrides the negative impact of contaminants, so if you can't find or afford organic, eat as wide a variety of thoroughly washed conventional produce as you can find. Eat locally grown produce whenever you can; it spends less time in transit and may retain more nutrients. [10]

A number of foods have anti-cancer properties. They include green tea at three or more cups per day, olive oil, berries, cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines, cruciferous and onion family vegetables, tomatoes, turmeric, ginger, and terpene-rich herbs such as mint, thyme, marjoram, oregano, basil, and rosemary. See AntiCancer for more about which foods are best for you and your type of cancer if you are a cancer patient. [11]

The type of water you drink is also critical for cancer patients. [12] I switched from bottled water to water from a purifier when I found out that the bottles water comes in, even the "safest," leach a variety of phthalates, inorganic phosphate, and other chemicals used to produce the plastic. Avoiding BPA (bisphenol A) is not enough! Do not use canned goods because the plastic can linings leach the same cancer-stimulating chemicals into the food. Get rid of your TupperwareTM and purchase some GlasslockTM food storage containers, or use glass and ceramic jars and bowls to store your food. Substitute cellophane bags and wrap for plastic. For more about how to store food without plastic visit the "Treading My Own Path" website here:

Cancer patients with allergies must "deal with your allergies," says Patrick Quillin, PhD, in Beating Cancer With Nutrition. He says that the immunoglobulins responsible for allergies depress the production of cancer-fighting immune factors such as natural killer cells and tumor necrosis factor. Eating foods you are allergic to distracts your immune system from its most important job of fighting cancer cells to attack food allergens. He recommends a rotation diet for those who have multiple food allergies.

Cancer patients who are recovering from surgery or taking chemotherapy may be too exhausted to shop or cook for the anti-cancer diet. My hope is that you have a friend or family member or can hire someone to do some cooking and shop for nourishing food, avoiding processed foods, sugar and unhealthy fats. Good nutrition will help you endure and recover from treatments and give you the best outcome. For more ideas about how to eat well at this stage of your treatment, click here.


[1] A traditional Mediterranean diet contains fruits and vegetables (veggies were the stars of meals in my childhood), proteins from legumes, cheese, and nuts, grain products such as pasta (not overcooked, so it has a low glycemic index), good crusty bread, olive oil, and fish and meat in moderation.
[2] Apple, Sam. "An Old Idea Revisited: Starve the Cancer to Death". New York Times, 5-16-2016.
[3] To make bread more easily using much less of your time, see Easy Breadmaking for Special Diets, 3rd Edition. The third edition contains recipes to make fermented sourdough with a variety of grains, including gluten-free grains. Theses recipes use a freeze-dried gluten-free starter so you do not have to maintain a sourdough culture and can make the bread with a bread machine.
[4] Servan-Schreiber, David, MD, PhD. AntiCancer: A New Way of Life. (New York: Penguin Group, Inc., 2009), 68-69.
[5] Servan-Schreiber, 71.
[6] Servan-Schreiber, 80.
[7] Servan-Schreiber, 75-58, 143.
[8] Servan-Schreiber, 80.
[9] Ingram, D. "Diet and Subsequent Survival in Women with Breast Cancer." British Journal of Cancer 69:3. 1994, 592-595.
[10] Servan-Schreiber, 123-125.
[11] Servan-Schreiber, 110-120.
[12] Servan-Schreiber, 86.
[13] Quillin, Patrick, PhD, RD, CNS. Beating Cancer with Nutrition, (Carlsbad, CA, Nutrition Times Press, 2005), 102-110.