The field of investigation of the role of nutrition in the cancer process is very broad. It is becoming clearer as research continues that nutrition plays a major role in cancer. It has been estimated by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund that 30–40 percent of all cancers can be prevented by appropriate diets, physical activity, and maintenance of appropriate body weight [1]. It is likely to be higher than this for some individual cancers.

Most of the research on nutrition and cancer has been reductionist; that is, a particular food or a nutrient has been studied in relation to its impact on tumor formation/regression or some other end point of cancer at a particular site in the body. These studies are very helpful in seeing the details of the mechanisms of disease. However, they do not help give an overall picture of how to prevent cancer on a dietary level. Even less, they tell little of how to eat when a person already has a cancer and would like to eat a diet that is favorable to their recovery.

This review will focus on those dietary factors which has been shown to be contribute to increased risk of cancer and then on those additional protective dietary factors which reduce cancer risk. Finally, some whole-diet studies will be mentioned which give a more complete picture of how these individual factors work together to reduce cancer risk.

Over Consumption of Energy (Calories)

Eating too much food is one of the main risk factors for cancer. This can be shown two ways: (1) by the additional risks of malignancies caused by obesity, and (2) by the protective effect of eating less food.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Sixty-four percent of the adult population is overweight or obese [2]. About 1 in 50 are now severely obese (BMI > 40 kg/m2) [3]. Mokdad et al [4] found that poor diet and physical inactivity was the second leading cause of death (400,000 per year in the USA), and would likely overtake tobacco as the leading cause of death.

It was estimated in a recent study, from a prospective cancer prevention cohort, that overweight and obesity accounted for 14 percent of all cancer deaths in men and 20 percent of those in women [5]. Significant positive associations were found between obesity and higher death rates for the following cancers: esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, kidney, stomach (in men), prostate, breast, uterus, cervix, and ovary [5]. The authors estimated that over 90,000 cancer deaths per year could be avoided if the adult population all maintained a normal weight (BMI < 25.0) [5]. Clearly, obesity is a major risk factor for cancer.

On the other side, careful menu planning brings about an approach entitled CRON-Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition. The basic idea is to eat a reduced amount of food (about 70–80 percent of the amount required to maintain "normal" body weight) while still consuming all of the necessary amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other necessary nutrients. The only restriction is the total amount of energy (calories) that is consumed. While being difficult to practice, this approach has a lot of scientific merit for being able to extend average life spans of many species of animals including rats, mice, fish, and possibly primates (currently being tested). Along with this life span extension is a reduction in chronic diseases that are common to mankind, reviewed in Hursting et al [6]. A recent meta-analysis of 14 experimental studies found that energy restriction resulted in a 55% reduction in spontaneous tumors in laboratory mice [7]. Calorie restriction inhibited induced mammary tumors in mice [8] and suppressed implanted tumor growth and prolonged survival in energy restricted mice [9]. Among Swedish women who had been hospitalized for anorexia nervosa (definitely lower caloric intake, but not adequate nutrition) prior to age 40, there was a 23% lower incidence of breast cancer for nulliparous women and a 76% lower incidence for parous women [10]. So, too many calories is definitely counter-productive, and slightly less than normal is very advantageous.