By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Did you know that an estimated 30 to 40 percent of all cancers are directly connected to obesity and the foods we eat? Not a surprising statistic, since inflammation is linked to the development of cancer and obesity, not to mention heart disease and other degenerative illnesses. While inflammation is caused by many sources, you can help prevent a good deal of it by filling our diet with cancer-fighting foods.
Basically, you want to stick to an anti-inflammatory diet, such as my PAMM diet. Based on cuisines of traditional Mediterranean and Asian cultures, this diet is anti-inflammatory because it is:
- Low-glycemic. Foods that are low glycemic don’t require much insulin to be released for their digestion. Too much insulin release, especially when a regular occurrence, can increase inflammation in the body. As a general rule of thumb, most fresh fruits and vegetables are low-glycemic, while processed carbohydrates (pastas, breads, cookies, etc.) are high-glycemic.
- Rich in antioxidants to help combat the free-radical stress which can cause inflammation; fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as various herbs and spices, are great sources of antioxidants. Additionally, plant foods contain phytonutrients, natural chemicals that help us fight against degenerative diseases, and the vitamins and minerals we need for growth, development, and optimal physiological function.
- High in healthy fats like the anti-inflammatory omega-3s found in fish, and monounsaturated fats like those in olive oil and avocado that help slow down release of insulin; likewise, it is low in hydrogenated, or trans-, fats, which are inflammatory.
- High in fiber. Fiber (also known as “roughage” or “bulk”) consists of plant parts that our bodies cannot break down and absorb. Instead, as it passes through us almost intact, it helps increase transit time through the digestive tract, which helps prevent accumulation of toxins and unhealthy bacteria. Fiber is found in fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice.
The Best Cancer-Fighting Foods
While eating anti-inflammatory food is a good rule of thumb for cancer prevention, we can also step up our health game by eating foods that actually help neutralize or combat cancer cells. Researchers have found three groups of vegetables to have outstanding anti-cancer properties:
- Cruciferous vegetables, for example, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, contain two kinds of potentially cancer-protective antioxidants – indoles and isothiocyanates. One type of isothiocyanate – sulforaphane – has been shown in studies to help prevent carcinogenic enzymes from causing dangerous cell changes. Indole-3-carbinol, a phytoestrogen indole, depresses harmful hormones that can fuel prostate and breast cancers, while boosting beneficial hormones in the body. Other compounds in cruciferous veggies can assist in apoptosis, the tendency of damaged cells to self-destruct. By eating broccoli, in particular, our bodies produce a chemical called diindolylmethane (DIM) that shows great promise as an immune system booster. As microwaving and broiling may reduce bioavailability of isothicynates, cruciferous vegetables are best eaten raw or just lightly cooked.
- Alliums, like onions, garlic,and leeks, are full of allyl sulfides, healing compounds that can help prevent various cancers, including those of the stomach, colon, ovarian and throat. Onions are high in antioxidants that protect DNA and block cancer cells at various stages. Garlic contains S-allylcysteine, which prevents healthy cells from becoming cancerous, as well as diallyl disulfide, a compound which stops existing cancers from spreading. To release garlic’s healing compounds, be sure to cut or smash the bulbs.
- Dark green vegetables are great cancer-fighting foods. Spinach, for example, contains 13 flavonoids which appear to have anti-cancer effects. In studies, extracts made from spinach have been shown to help slow stomach cancer development, accelerate apoptosis of prostate cancer cells, and reduce the incidence of skin cancers. And, as with Brussels sprouts, Kale contains indoles and isothiocyanates.
Other Anti-Cancer Vegetables and Fruits of Mention
For cancer prevention, I also like:
- Mushrooms – Maitake, Shitake and Enoki mushrooms (not the white button mushrooms we find in most supermarkets), or “Asian mushrooms” are known for their health-enhancing properties.
Maitakes, in particular, are powerful anti-cancer agents because they have a chemical structure similar to that of beta glucan; beta glucan is a strong immune system booster which, when used in conjunction with chemotherapy, has been shown to help decrease the size of some tumors. Maitakes are also believed to prevent environmental toxins from catalyzing carcinogenic changes. Legend has it that eating maitakes can make a person dance with joy over the delectable flavor and health-enhancing properties of these mushrooms.
Enoki mushrooms contain an immune system stimulating substance called flammulin, which is also is cancer-protective. Shitake mushrooms, which are the most popular in the U.S., give us lentinan, a substance believed to help detoxify the body of carcinogens as well as prompt the immune system to attack cancer cells.
- Tomatoes. Especially the bright red variety, tomatoes contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant carotenoid that appears to slow cancer cell growth. Tomato sauce and paste, catsup, and salsa are great sources of lycopene (unlike many phytonutrients, lycopene isn’t damaged during high heat processing and is actually made more available through cooking).
- Those with beta-carotene, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash. Beta carotene is a plant pigment that is known to help protect against lung cancer, especially in former smokers. Please note, while it’s possible to get beta carotene in supplement form, I advise patients who smoke not to take beta-carotene supplements; researchers have determined that, for smokers, taking beta carotene in excess quantities will enhance the development of lung cancer.
- Apples. Eating flavonoid-rich apples each day might just keep the oncologist away. Apple peels, in particular are very high in anti-cancer procyanidins. Try to find organic apples to avoid toxic pesticide residues.
- Berries. Due to their high antioxidant content, berries – especially blueberries, strawberries and blackberries – are great ammunition against cancer.
- Oranges, grapefruits and other citrus fruits. Not only are grapefruits and oranges high in Vitamin C and fiber, but they are also full of chemical compounds that can help destroy cancer cells. Grapefruit, in particular, contains limonene, a phytonutrient that helps the body counteract free-radical stress.
- Lignan-producing foods: When we eat beans, flaxseed, sesame seeds, kale and broccoli,our bodies produce phytoestrogens called lignans. Phytoestrogens are preventative against cancer because they can connect with estrogen receptor sites in our bodies before plastics and petrochemicals – environmental toxins with estrogen-like qualities – can.
Beans, in particular, are some of my favorite foods for cancer prevention. Extremely high in antioxidants and phytic acid, a substance that helps prevent cancer cells from growing and spreading, beans also contain compounds that can help stop normal cells from mutating into cancerous ones. Rich in enzymes called protease inhibitors, beans can also help inhibit cancers by neutralizing carcinogens in the digestive tract. Additionally, they are high in protein, and can help replace the need for meat consumption; eating too much red meat is linked to the development of cancer and heart disease – try to limit red meat consumption to no more than 2 to 3 times per week (for example, a steak dinner one night, a roast beef sandwich for lunch and a hamburger on another occasion).
- Soybeans. In addition to lignans, soybeans contain phytoestrogens called isoflavones. Isoflavones block estrogen receptors in cells to help reduce the risk of environmental estrogens and testosterone fueling cancer cell growth; they also keep natural estrogen from triggering changes that can promote growth of certain tumors.
- Foods with Omega-3 – fish and nuts (walnuts and almonds). Eating fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring or sardines a few times per week can help us reduce our risk of colon cancer. The omega-3s in fish may also reduce risk of prostate cancer. If accessing fresh fish (wild caught, not the farm raised variety) is tough, try supplementing with 1 to 3 g fish or squid oil daily. Walnuts and almonds are great sources of alpha-linoleic acid, from which our bodies can make omega-3.
- Green tea. Not only is it lower in caffeine than black tea and coffee, but green tea contains compounds which can block or inhibit many cancers. It also stimulates liver enzymes that help us detoxify. Both green and black teas contain polyphenols, substances which limit the development of blood vessels that nourish tumors.
- Pomegranate juice. With powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, pomegranate helps preserve the integrity of blood vessels. It is especially protective for the prostate, and preliminary studies have shown that it can help slow the progression of prostate cancer.
- Grapes are full of resveratrol, a polyphenolic compound that helps the body defend against carcinogenic toxins. Resveratrol is also cardio-protective, and may be behind the “French paradox” (that, in general, the French have low rates of heart disease due to red wine consumption, despite high levels of saturated fat in their diets and cigarette smoking).
You CAN help prevent cancer (obesity, heart disease and diabetes) with the foods you eat!
The keys are to:
- Significantly limit or eliminate consumption of processed and sugary foods;
- Make fresh fruits and vegetables, preferably eaten raw, the majority portion of each meal;
- Eat organic food as much as possible to avoid exposure to toxic pesticides;
- Regularly incorporate the cancer-preventative foods mentioned above into our diets.
If filling at least two-thirds of your plate with fresh fruits and vegetables seems unfathomable for every meal, try eating at least one meal a day that is heavy on the fruit and veggies. Keep it up for a few months. As your body adjusts to less processed and sugary foods, your taste buds will too, and hopefully you’ll actually start craving healthy food!
Want to Learn More about Healthy Eating
- One of my favorite ways to get lots of fruits and veggies into my diet, and deliver a knock-out punch against cancer, is to drink them each day! Check out my Sinatra-Smart Smoothie video and recipes to learn more.
- Watch my Healthy Cooking Videos for other more cancer-fighting recipes (like Steamed Vegetables, Miso Soup, and Mushrooms and Artichokes).
- Liu RH. Potential Synergy of Phytochemicals in Cancer Prevention: Mechanism of Action. J. Nutr. 2004 Dec. 134(12 Suppl): 3479S-3485S.
Page last updated October 5, 2016.
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