Foods to Fight Cancer

Health, Home & Family
on January 5, 2003

Mindi Steinberg keeps a bowl of red grapes on the kitchen counter for snacking and is a whiz with a juicer, whipping up a daily dose of cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables.

“If I don’t eat anything else, I’ll get my vegetables for the day with the juice,” says Steinberg of Suffern, N.Y. “I feel good about what I do for myself.”

Steinberg is arming herself against cancer, even though she doesn’t have any risk factors. “I want to make sure I don’t get any,” she says.

Simply eating certain foods can play a powerful role in preventing a wide range of disease, including cancer, doctors agree.

“As a doctor, patients tell me the same thing all the time—they can’t radically change their entire lifestyle,” says Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, director of medical oncology at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City and co-author of Dr. Gaynor’s Cancer Prevention Program. “You don’t have to. You just have to educate yourself. There are a number of lifestyle factors that can make a difference.”

Choosing particular foods to boost your body’s ability to fend off cancer cells is one of those ways, Gaynor says.

If you’re looking to cut your cancer risk, you’ll want to stock up on these. Most contain high levels of antioxidants—compounds that protect DNA from the damaging effects of oxygen molecules called free radicals.

“If you leave iron out in oxygen, it rusts,” explains Carolyn Katzin, author of three books, including The Cancer Nutrition Center Handbook. “We don’t rust, but we need the protection of antioxidants from free radicals.”

Broccoli: Enzymes throughout the body break down potentially toxic substances in food and the environment. Broccoli is high in a substance called sulforaphane that kick-starts those enzymes, says Rachel Beller, director of nutritional oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. It has been shown to help prevent breast and colon cancer, she says.

Broccoli is a “big staple” at Kee Flynn’s house. An artist in Pacific Palisades, Calif., she adopted a preventive diet after being diagnosed with hepatitis C, which puts her at risk for liver cancer.

If broccoli isn’t to your liking, try cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, mustard greens, or Brussels sprouts. They’re all part of the same family of cruciferous vegetables.

Broccoli seed sprouts have 100 times the sulforaphane as broccoli, Beller says. It’s a little bitter, she says, but “if you put it in a sandwich, you’ll be fine.”

Tomatoes: Ever wonder what gives tomatoes their rich, red color? It’s a pigment called lycopene. A rich source of antioxidants, lycopenes are associated with reduced risk in prostate, breast, lung, cervical, digestive tract, endometrial, and pancreatic cancer.

In a large-scale study with 47,000 subjects, men who ate 10 servings of tomato-based foods a week cut their risk of prostate cancer by 45 percent, according to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Tomatoes are the one food that is better for you processed, in tomato sauce, paste, juice, and even ketchup. Eaten raw, the lycopenes are bound up in the fibers of the tomato, Gaynor says. Cooking helps release them for better absorption in the body.

Garlic: While you’re loading up on tomato sauce, don’t forget the garlic. Greek physician Hippocrates identified garlic as a good way to protect against solid tumors more than 2,000 years ago, Katzin says. It boosts the immune system, detoxifies cancer-causing carcinogens, and has cancer-fighting enzymes.

For the best benefit, peel fresh garlic and let it sit for 15 minutes before you use it, allowing it to release those enzymes, Beller says.

Olive oil: In Greece and Italy, the amount of olive oil used is 10 times that used by Americans, and breast cancer is 70 percent less than in the United States, Gaynor says.

The critical element appears to be a chemical called squalene. Not only does it bolster the immune system to help fend off disease, it also inhibits tumor growth. Olive oil loses its preventive benefits when it’s heated for cooking, he says, but it’s great for salads.

Red grapes: Just under the skin of crunchy red grapes is an important antioxidant called resveratrol. It’s also active in unsweetened red grape juice and red wine.

Berries: Most are thought of as a fun dessert, but berries are powerful enemies to cancer cells. Strawberries are rich in ellagic acid, a potent killer of cancer cells, Katzin says. (Pomegranates also are full of ellagic acid.)

Blueberries are one of the richest sources of natural antioxidants; they’re also high in anti-inflammatory salicylates. Inflammation appears to be associated with early stages of cancer growth.

Deep, cold-water fish: Fish is a great low-fat source of protein. Mackerel, halibut, cod, salmon, tuna, haddock, and sardines contain an oil called omega-3 fatty acid. The fish need it to stay warm in deep water; in people, it helps ward off cancer. Several studies have found a relationship between fish and fish oil and reduced rates of breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer, Gaynor says.

If you’re not a big fish eater, flaxseed also is a good source of omega-3 fatty acid, Beller says. You can sprinkle ground, vacuum-packed flaxseed on cereal, in applesauce, or on cottage cheese. She recommends one to two flat tablespoons a day. Besides the anti-cancer benefits, she says, “you get shiny hair out of it and nice skin, too.”

Bran: Experts at the John Wayne Cancer Institute recommend 30 to 35 grams of fiber a day, but because you would need to eat 10 apples or bananas a day to get that much fiber, Beller recommends a very high-fiber breakfast cereal, such as Fiber One, All Bran Extra Fiber, or Bran Buds.

Fiber swallows the carcinogens that sit in the intestines and then seep into the colon and the blood. If you’re adding this much fiber to your diet, Beller recommends drinking eight to 10 cups of water or decaffeinated beverages a day “or it will sit in your stomach like cement.”

Carrots: Carrots are loaded with carotenoids, the pigment that gives them their color. All carotenoids are related to vitamin A, the most important vitamin for the immune system, Gaynor says. Several studies have indicated carotenoids reduce the risk of lung, stomach, cervical, and breast cancer.

Katzin suggests a juice of carrots and watercress for a carotene-rich drink. Other good sources of carotenoids include sweet potatoes, pumpkin, winter squash, cantaloupe, broccoli, spinach, and Brussels sprouts.

Green tea: There’s nothing quite like a relaxing cup of tea. Drink green tea and you’ll also get a healthy dose of polyphenols, including ECGC, an antioxidant that’s 200 times more powerful than Vitamin C, Beller says. It also contains catechins, a chemical that keeps tumors from growing blood vessels.

Gaynor recommends drinking two to three cups a day. Add some fresh mint leaves for added flavor. “That helps with digestion and adds a fantastic aroma and taste,” he says.

Herbs: You can bump the flavor—and the cancer-fighting factor—of many foods by adding herbs, such as oregano, rosemary, sage, basil, and parsley. Rosemary is a powerful tumor inhibitor, Gaynor says, citing several studies that show compounds in rosemary helped reduce skin, breast, and colon tumors in rat studies.

Oregano has 30 times more antioxidant activity than potatoes, and a tablespoon of fresh oregano has the same antioxidants as a medium-sized apple, Beller says.

The extra effort required to shop for and prepare a cancer-preventive diet is worth it, Flynn says. Indeed, she finds it empowering and says she feels “terrific.”

“It makes you feel like you can do something for yourself,” she says. “I don’t think it’s hard to do at all. It just becomes a part of your life.”

Steinberg, mother of four and a staunch believer in Gaynor’s cancer-prevention diet, has unlimited energy, she says. “I do more in a day that most people do in a week,” she says. “I’m like the Energizer Bunny. I definitely feel the difference.”