Copyright 2007 Joe Smulevitz, C.H., M.H.

Although, no single food will eliminate the risk of cancer, plant-based foods may reduce the likelihood of certain cancers.   Foods such as legumes, grains, fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals, protective substances occurring naturally in plant foods that may fight cancer.  However, not all plant foods are created equal.  Some contain particular phytochemicals that have the strongest cancer prevention potential.

Many researchers believe that the following plant-based foods can play an important role in cancer prevention:

Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, collard greens, kale and turnips appear to contain vital cancer fighting components.  The crunchy vegetables are rich sources of glucosinolates, a class of sulfer-containing phytochemicals that give these vegetables their taste.  Chewing cruciferous vegetables releases an enzyme that transforms glucosinolates into seemingly potent anti-cancer compounds, isothiocyanates and indoles. 

These compounds may help activate enzymes in the body that detoxify and eliminate carcinogens (cancer causing substances).   It is important to cook cruciferous vegetables lightly in a minimum of water, to fully take advantage of the promising cancer fighting power of these vegetables.

Garlic and to a lesser extent other members of the Allium family including onions, leeks, shallots and chives appears to reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, especially those of the gastrointestinal tract.  Several sulfer-based phytochemicals found primarily in garlic, slow the development of tumor cells and protect against cancers caused by potential nitrite carcinogens (preservation used in pickled foods and cured meat products).  Scientists suggest waiting 15 minutes between peeling and cooking garlic to attain the full impact of its cancer prevention possibilities.  Otherwise, one of the most important substances in garlic (diallyl disulfide) is lost.

Most berries are loaded with several classes of phytochemicals that exhibit anticancer potential.  Research indicates the consumption of berries may slow the progress of existing tumors.  For instance, raspberries and strawberries contain ellagic acid, a molecule likely to counter development of tumor cells.  Compounds in black raspberries may prevent cancer of the colon and esophagus.  Pterostibene, an antioxidant in blueberries, may also restrain colon cancer.  Another antioxidant, anthocyanidins, provides the blueberry with a higher antioxidant activity than almost any other fruit or vegetable.

Red wine contains a number of important phytochemicals that may inhibit the development and progression of prostate, breast and colon cancer.  The most important, resveratrol is present in red wine but not in white wine.  Resveratrol, found in the skins and seeds of red grapes is quickly removed in the production of white wine.  Moderate consumption of red wine is recommended.  Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is linked to many types of cancers.  Pure grape juice is a better alternative for pregnant or nursing women, or anyone unwilling or unable to consume alcohol.  Purple grape juice is one of the best healthy juices, high in antioxidants.

Green tea has been consumed for centuries as a healthful tea in Asian countries.  Recently, its potential anticancer compounds have come to light in North America.  The tea leaf consists of complex molecules known as catechins, believed to inhibit cell proliferation and tumor promotion.  Unfortunately, for consumers, the catechin content of the tea fluctuates, according to the area of cultivation, processing techniques and other factors.  To achieve maximum effectiveness of the tea, select Japanese green tea, steep up to 10 minutes to extract an adequate amount of catechin molecules.

Tomatoes contain a powerful nutrient, lycopene that has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer development, especially prostate, lung and stomach cancer.  Products from cooked tomatoes, such as pasta sauce, are especially rich in lycopene, compared to raw tomatoes. Exposure to heating, allows better extraction of lycopene, making it easier for the body to absorb the nutrient.  Additionally, eating tomatoes cooked in oil, such as olive oil, is an excellent way to further maximize the assimilation of lycopene.

A number of additional foods high in phytochemicals may help prevent cancer through diet:  Soy foods, rich in isoflavones such as tofu, and soybeans deter cancerous tumors from forming.  The spice, turmeric and its constituent curcumin, may help prevent breast, colon, esophageal, skin and stomach cancers.  A teaspoon of turmeric can be added to foods to aid in cancer prevention.  Omega-3 fatty acids from salmon, mackerel, sardines, flax seed and nuts are important anti-inflammatory, anti-cancerous fatty acids.  Citrus fruits have molecules that may act directly on cancerous cells preventing their advancement.

Hopefully, as more potential anti-cancer compounds are identified in foods, diet will be an increasingly important part in cancer prevention.

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