No one food offers a golden ticket to fighting cancer, but a smart combination of eight “cancer-blocking” foods offers the strongest protection and contributes to overall health. By Maureen Callahan, MS, RD
Single foods like green tea and tomatoes are touted as cancer fighters, but the reality is it’s your overall eating habits that offer the strongest protection. The best strategy: a diet rich in plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Also good: eating more omega-3 fats like those found in salmon and flax, and cutting back on saturated fat, trans fat, and sugar. Cultivating the right kind of eating actually changes your “internal terrain” and makes it inhospitable to cancer, say experts at the Block Integrative Cancer Center. So start building your cancer-fighting arsenal with these eight cancer blockers. And keep in mind, the more fruits and vegetables on the plate, the better. This salad contains spinach, strawberries, and almonds - three of our cancer-fighting foods.
As a family, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage look nothing alike on the outside, but among cancer researchers, it’s what’s inside that counts. Each of these veggies are rich in isothiocyanates and indoles, compounds that put the double whammy on cancer by inhibiting enzymes that activate carcinogens and stimulating enzymes that deactivate them. Women take note: “No other group of foods has more scientific support for helping to prevent breast cancer,” says Jackie Glew, RD, Lead Clinical Nutritional Manager at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Skokie, Illinois.
Most cooks think of garlic, onions, scallions, leeks, and chives as flavor enhancers, but they also have the potential to protect against stomach cancer according to the latest report on diet and cancer from the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR). Animal research suggests the long list of cancer-protective compounds found in the allium family may slow the development of breast, colon, esophagus, and lung cancer, too. Look for recipes that feature garlic or onion as a main ingredient rather than as a subtle flavor enhancer to gain the most benefit.
Because they’re good sources of Vitamin C and fiber, berries help to protect against esophogeal and colorectal cancers. They’re also rich in powerful disease-fighting antioxidants called anthocyanidins (a pigment that tints plants blue, red, and purple). Strawberries and raspberries carry high levels of ellagic acid and research suggest this compound tackles cancer on a couple of different fronts, slowing reproduction of cancer cells, deactivating some carcinogens, and acting as an antioxidant. Enjoy berries fresh or frozen (sans sugary syrup) for the most benefits.
Red lentils, kidney beans, and black-eyed peas are chock full of cancer-fighting potential. Top on the list is folate, a B vitamin that reduces the risk of pancreatic cancer. Resistant starch and fiber are two more potential weapons, something gut bacteria use to produce compounds that protect colon cells. But the best news to date: Preliminary reports show people who routinely include beans, lentils, and dried peas at meals have a reduced risk of breast and prostate cancer.
Low in saturated fat, most nuts and seeds are already a good addition to any plant-based diet, but two family members stand out, walnuts and flaxseed. Eating small amounts of walnuts can cut the risk of breast cancer in half according to a recent study. Preliminary reports also suggest a role for these nuts in blocking colorectal cancers. As for flaxseeds, these have cancer-fighting potential due to their fiber, omega-3 fats, and lignans (beneficial plant compound).
Spinach, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard, and even romaine lettuce are high on the radar of cancer researchers for a lot of reasons. They’re rich in nutrients that block cancer plus they harbor a wide range of disease-fighting chemicals. Research has found that these foods may protect against cancers of the mouth and larynx and may also stunt the growth of breast, skin, stomach, and lung cancer cells. But hand over the biggest prize to Popeye’s favorite veggie, spinach. Studies show compounds in spinach can block certain carcinogens from other foods and may provide potential anti-cancer properties that can be used in future drugs.
When pooling the results of lots of different studies on diet and fish, researchers discovered that people who eat fish more often have a 12% lower risk of developing colorectal cancer. Eating higher amounts of fish and poultry (and less processed meat) is also linked with reduced risk of ovarian cancer. Experts have yet to tease out the beneficial fish compounds, but many suspect it could be the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon and sardines. In the meantime, consider all types of fish as healthy choices for a cancer-fighting diet.