A common question I get during my nutrition counseling sessions is, “What about cancer-preventing foods? Are there really ‘super foods’ that will lessen my chances of getting cancer someday?” Since the disease is [unfortunately] prevalent and has likely touched close to home for too many of us, chances are, you’ve wondered the same thing. Plenty of food and supplement companies claim to hold the magic key/ticket/pill, but where is the proof? How can we really know which miracle foods or wonder drugs are worth including in our food choices (and spending money on)?
An astonishing statistic, “Only 5-10% of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90-95% have their roots in environment and lifestyle (1).” Of these lifestyle factors, as many as 35% of cancer-related deaths can be directly linked to diet. (Reread those last two sentences.) So, then, what do we eat? There is no lack of research showing how essential it is that we eat our fruits and vegetables. There are thousands of phytochemicals (phyto=plant) that have been identified as key players when it comes to fighting off cancer. Lets dig in!
Phytochemicals such as anthocyanins (think of red, blue, and purple colored fruits and veggies), have anti-carcinogenic properties (3). Blackberry, black raspberry, blueberry, cranberry, red raspberry and strawberry have all shown to inhibit the growth of cancer cells (4). Another plant chemical group, polyphenols, is the largest group of phytochemicals and have been shown to suppress cancer activity by killing off cancer cells. Green tea contains a high number of polyphenols (5).
Practical tip: Add frozen berries to smoothies and enjoy a mid-day cup of green tea!
Crucifers- or cruciferous vegetables, named appropriately due to their flower petals which resemble a cross, play a huge part in being an anti-cancer group of veggies.
Examples include arugula, bok choi, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, daikon, kale, radish, turnips, wasabi and watercress. These foods protect cells from DNA damage, inactivate carcinogens, induce cell death, and inhibit tumor blood vessel formation (6). Broccoli, in particular, has even been shown to protect against colon cancer (7).
Practical tip(s): add some spicy arugula to your salad, enjoy oven roasted broccoli, and ask for extra wasabi when out for sushi!
Alliums – also known as flowering onions, have edible roots and leaves and usually have a strong, sulphur-like pungent smell. Examples include chives, garlic, leeks, onions, and shallots. Medicinal properties can help protect against cancer, especially those of the GI tract, according to a 2016 study published in the American Association for Cancer Research. Their bioactive sulfur compounds have been studied extensively, especially in garlic and onions, and “…affect many biological processed that modify cancer risk (2).” This study dives into the mechanisms of the medicinal properties and discusses how these foods can decrease the bioactivation of cancer-causing compounds and even prove their antimicrobial activity. Practical tip: top soups and salads with onions and chives or double the garlic when making homemade pasta sauce.
To keep it simple, eat whole, plant-based foods, and include as many phytochemicals/crucifers/alliums as you can. The less processed the food the better, and the more natural the food form the better off you’ll be. Does the food look like it did (relatively) before it was harvested? Go for it! Is there an ingredient list full of names you can’t easily pronounce? Leave it. When it comes to our health, consider the science, but also use common sense. As journalist and activist Michael Pollan famously declares, to achieve or maintain health and wellness, we must “eat food, mostly plants, and not too much.”