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Getting Started: PCF’s 30-Day Healthy Eating Challenge

healthy foods

Congratulations! You’ve taken the first steps towards eating healthier during Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. We’re thrilled that you’re joining us on a quest for healthier habits. In September, we usually focus on prostate cancer, but we also know that some of the factors thought to be associated with prostate cancer—such as inflammation, exercise, and the microbiome—are also relevant in other cancers and chronic diseases. All of us can benefit from making small improvements in lifestyle.

Back in March, we stocked up on pasta, and many people have continued to cook more at home rather than going out to eat. While preparing food at home IS generally good for your health—people tend to consume more calories, salt, and fat in restaurant meals—you may be finding that you’re in a recipe rut and needing a little inspiration in the kitchen. This challenge provides an easy-to-follow plan to incorporate new, healthy ingredients.

The word “diet” comes from the Greek “diaeta,” meaning “way of life.” Our hope is that the month’s activities will become a habit: you check out the list, find some new recipes or use our suggestions, and explore that section of the grocery store. Repeat that several times….and you’re on your way to a new way of life—or, at least, a better way to eat.

There are a couple of things we should mention at the beginning: Unfortunately, there’s no single miracle food or elixir that will prevent or cure chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. These are complex conditions with multiple roots, including genes, home and work environment, the immune system, and lifestyle factors like smoking, exercise, and diet – all connected to broader factors such as race, access to health care, and socioeconomic status. (We’ll dive into some of these topics in detail over the next month.) But lifestyle factors can have a meaningful impact on disease risk, progression, and recovery. This month is a series of “baby steps” in the right direction—whether you’re already eating an unprocessed, plant-focused diet or you’re just getting started.

Although we’ve curated 30 foods to try to incorporate into your diet, there are many other healthy foods to choose from both on our 95-item periodic table (see below) and beyond. If you have an allergy, intolerance, interaction with a medication, or just plain don’t like some of our suggestions, you are free to choose any other food from the table.

What is the Periodic Table?

      • It originated from the world of chemistry. First created in 1869 with 63 entries, the modern Periodic Table of the Elements displays 118 known “pure” chemical substances, called elements, organized by their properties. Elements in the same row, or period, have a similar arrangement of their electrons. Most (94) occur naturally (e.g., carbon and hydrogen); the remaining elements are synthesized in labs or nuclear reactors.
          • PCF developed our concept of the food periodic table with 95 “elemental” foods—occurring in nature, minimally processed, high in fiber, and good for your microbiome. (How much do you know about “real” foods? Take our quiz.) We’ve grouped them (not strictly!) into some general categories: fruits, nuts and seeds, beans, grains, fermented foods, Allium (garlic, onion, shallots). Also like the original, our table is dynamic; we’ll let you know when there’s an update.

Let’s take a look at how some guiding principles of healthy foods helped to shape our table, and what they mean for you. If you’ve read our guide, The Science of Living Well, Beyond Cancer, or checked out our recommendations for men with prostate cancer, these will sound familiar.

1. Fiber and the microbiome. The microbiome is the collection of micro-organisms (bacteria, viruses, and fungi) that live on and in our bodies, and, in particular, our gut. Some are “bad,” disease-causing organisms, but when we’re healthy, the “good guys” rule, performing many important functions. Many of the bacteria on your body were acquired at birth, and many of the bacteria in your gut are acquired through the food you eat. Research indicates that the more fiber-rich foods you eat, the more “good” bacteria grow in your gut. Moreover, eating a healthy mix of different plant-based foods can help foster the correct diversity of disease-fighting gut bacteria. Some research has linked the rise of many chronic diseases over the past 50 years—including obesity, diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular disease—to the microbiome. Can eating more fiber reverse or prevent these conditions? Research is ongoing, but, if proven, dietary changes sound preferable to a handful of pills or even surgery.

2. Phytochemicals and antioxidants. Phytochemicals are simply plant (phyto)-based compounds that have nutritional benefit; many of them are antioxidants. And claims for antioxidants abound on food packaging. But what are they, why are they important, and how do you find them? As our cells go through life, they are bombarded with highly active chemicals called free radicals that want to “steal” electrons (oxidation) from our DNA and other molecules that we need to function. Antioxidants are helpful molecules that give up electrons to those active chemicals, reducing the threat to us. You’ve heard of vitamins A, C, and E, but there are hundreds or thousands of others with fancy names like flavonoids (one class is found in soy), glucosinolates (in cruciferous veggies), and carotenoids (vitamin A is one; lycopene, which has been linked to reduced prostate cancer risk, is another).

3. Superfoods! We already said there are no magic cure-all foods, but there are some nutritional standouts that score high in fiber, antioxidants, or both. Superfoods are usually (but not always) identifiable by their deep color. This month’s list includes dark green leafy kale, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and blueberries.

4. Plant-based. You’ll notice that the only 2 animal products on our periodic table are fermented dairy: yogurt and kefir. Plant foods are, generally, low in saturated fat and high(er) in fiber, so they provide plenty of nutrients and don’t cause inflammation. Long-standing inflammation is higher in metabolic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. It’s caused by a few different things, but one mechanism involves eating saturated fats, found in animal foods and especially in fatty red meat and pork. Your immune cells see saturated fatty acids as toxins and launch an inflammatory response. If you eat these foods regularly, the response continues. Toxins also come from certain types of bacteria in your gut, and a high-fiber diet (that means plant foods!) can decrease the proportion of those bacteria. Watch your email this month, as there’s more to come on inflammation, as well as fermentation—the what, why, and how.