Plants Against Cancer
Produce packs a powerful punch in
the fight against this tenacious disease.
By Beverly Burmeier
If cancer is the villain, then the hero may be as close as your neighborhood food market.
More than one million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and as many as 90% of cases may be preventable, according to the National Institutes of Health. In fact, being overweight or obese is thought to contribute to one out of five cancer-related deaths. Because many cancers are related to lifestyle factors including diet, what you put in your shopping cart may be crucial for cutting cancer off at the pass.
“Diet is one factor we can control, so why not use it to our advantage?” says Leslie Bonci, RD, MPH, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center. “We know enough about phytonutrients to say that eating a plant-based diet promotes overall good health and can reduce your risk for cancer.” Consuming phytonutrient-rich foods on a regular basis is believed to block carcinogens and suppress malignant cell growth.
Plants also contain antioxidants, which fight the free radicals that can damage DNA and other cellular structures. “Antioxidants help protect against damage that happens every day as part of normal metabolism—damage that is linked with increased cancer risk,” says Lindsey Lee, MaEd, RD, LD, Director of the EatRight Program at University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The American Cancer Society recommends eating at least two-and-a-half cups of vegetables and fruits each day. Clare McKindley, RD, LD, clinical dietitian at MD Anderson Cancer Prevention Center in Houston, Texas, explains it this way: “Two-thirds of your dinner plate should be filled with plant-based foods. This helps keep weight under control and promotes healthy cells while reducing inflammation potentially linked to cancer.”
“You should eat a healthy diet consisting of whole foods and whole-grains rather than processed products,” adds Lee.
Don’t be afraid to add a serving or two of produce, either. “Most Americans don’t get the recommended five servings daily of fruits and vegetables,” says McKindley. With such a variety of fruits and vegetables to choose from there’s no reason to skimp. These are the items you should concentrate on.
Eat your broccoli. That may be the best cancer-fighting advice your mother ever gave you. The most popular member of the same crucifer family that includes cauliflower, kale, turnips, Brussels sprouts and cabbage, broccoli is loaded with folate, fiber and antioxidants and has been found to defend the body against colorectal cancer. “If you have a family history of the disease, a half cup of broccoli a day may be the best preventive food you can eat,” Bonci says.
Broccoli has been shown to suppress Helicobacter pylori, a common bacterial infection that’s a major cause of stomach cancer. Research also shows that indole-3-carbinol, a compound found in broccoli and related vegetables, may protect against cancers of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts (lung and esophageal cancers in particular) and may help ward off skin and breast malignancies, too. One study presented before the American Association for Cancer Research found women who had the highest daily intake of cruciferous vegetables had a 62% percent reduced risk of breast cancer mortality and 35% percent reduced risk of cancer recurrence compared with women consuming the lowest amounts.
Bring on the berries. These tasty fruits contain ellagic acid, which the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center says can help protect against breast, skin, bladder, esophaegeal and lung cancers. Berries are also full of antioxidants, flavonoids and vitamins that neutralize free radicals to help prevent cell damage associated with cancer, and the vitamin C they contain boosts your immune system. “Sprinkle fresh or frozen strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries on yogurt or mix berries into a smoothie,” suggests Bonci.
Buy bags of fresh cranberries in the fall when they’re at their peak of nutritional value, and make your own sauce with orange juice and nuts. Cranberries contain benzoic acid, which has been shown to inhibit the growth of lung and colon cancer and some forms of leukemia.
The next time you’re out berry shopping don’t forget to grab some grapes. They are a rich source of resveratrol, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory found in the skins of purple and red varieties. The American Institute for Cancer Research (www.aicr.org) reports that resveratrol helps to keep tumor cells from growing or invading surrounding tissues and that grapes help fight against liver, stomach, breast and colon cancers.
Look for leaves. Dark leafy greens have been linked to a reduced risk of colorectal cancer, according to a study in the Journal of Nutrition. Among the best of the green stuff is spinach; it powers up your body with fiber, folate and antioxidants, which the AICR says helps protect against cancers of the oral cavity and throat. Mustard greens, kale and Swiss chard are also packed with nutrients that inhibit cancer cell and tumor growth, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
The only problem with greens lies in the way they are sometimes prepared. Instead of cooking them with bacon, for example, steam them and use smoked turkey as a flavoring agent. Or use a simply elegant dressing of olive oil and lemon juice.
Enjoy a daily apple. The adage about an apple a day keeping the doctor away is still good advice. Apple peel contains quercetin, a major dietary flavonoid that protects cells’ DNA from damage that the AICR says could lead to mouth, colon, lung, and possibly breast cancer.
Onions are also high in quercetin, which has been found to be an especially potent agent against squamous cell carcinoma (skin cancer). An anti-inflammatory, quercetin also boosts the immune system.
Pass the (whole grain) pizza. Tomato soup, pizza and spaghetti sauces are prime sources of lycopene, an antioxidant that reduces risk of prostate cancer. Although fresh is best for many vegetables, the greatest protective effect comes from cooked tomatoes since heat unleashes more of the lycopene. Carrots, pink grapefruit and watermelon also contain lycopene, so the AICR recommends adding them to your shopping cart for protection against stomach, colon, endometrial, lung and breast cancer.
The problem with pizza lies in its typically white-flour crust and in toppings such as sausage and pepperoni. Boost your pizza’s nutritional value with whole-grain crust (you can even use almond flour for a low-carb version) and toppings that go light on the meat and cheese, and heavy on the veggies.
Search out bright orange produce. Pumpkins, squash, carrots, papayas and sweet potatoes all pack a punch with carotenoids, cancer-fighting nutrients linked to prevention of colon, prostate, breast and lung cancer. Be sure to enjoy your carotenoid-rich produce with a little healthy fat, such as by sautéing them in olive oil, to enhance nutrient absorption.
Vitamin C in oranges and other citrus fruits enhances the immune system and neutralizes cancer-causing chemicals that could form in the body. Orange and other juices are high on the sugar scale, however, so enjoy your citrus in whole-fruit form.
Nosh on nuts and gobble grains. Nuts and seeds are great sources of fiber and vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant. Flax and chia seeds, along with walnuts, are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which helps prevent the low-level inflammation linked to cancer development.
“Include hearty whole grains such as oats, bran, wheat, or bulgar in meals,” says Lee. Adequate fiber intake reduces the risk of colon cancer, and studies have shown that stomach and breast cancers are less common on high-fiber diets as well.
Take some green tea. Known for its heart-protective qualities, green tea—especially a key component called EGCG—has shown an ability to defend against cancer as well. Research published in Nutrition Journal found that consuming the world’s most popular hot beverage helps modify how the body uses estrogen, which plays a key role in breast cancer development. Studies have also found green tea to fight prostate cancer, another hormone-related malignancy, through a variety of mechanisms.
In addition, green tea may be useful against certain kinds of blood cancers. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota discovered that a green tea extract was able to reduce markers of disease progression in people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Annette Ramke and Kendall Scott, authors of Kicking Cancer in the Kitchen
(Running Press) cite cashews as “a particularly great source of magnesium,
important for healthy bones and for muscle relaxation.” Kale, a member of the
legume family, supplies calcium and vitamins A, C and K, along with carotenoids,
fiber, flavonoids, folate, iron and protein. Tamari is a thicker, richer,
more complex type of soy sauce.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large carrot, thinly sliced into rounds (about ½ cup)
2 bunches kale, thick stems removed, thinly sliced (about 8 cups)*
1 garlic clove, minced
2-3 tbsp tamari
½ cup raw cashews
¼ cup raisins
1. Heat oil in a pan over medium heat and sauté the carrot for five minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and sauté a few minutes until the cashews begin to soften. Yields 2 ½ cups.
*You can substitute collards or Swiss chard.
From Kicking Cancer in the Kitchen by Annette Ramke
and Kendall Scott (Running Press, www.runningpress.com).
Photo by Steve Legato.