On the Menu: Cancer-Fighting Super Foods

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Just the mere mention of the “C” word strikes terror in us all. We all know a family member, a friend, a coworker, or a neighbor who is currently battling cancer, has survived cancer, or died from cancer.The National Cancer Institute estimates that 13.7 million Americans are currently living with or have survived cancer, and another 1.6 million of us will be diagnosed with the disease this year.But researchers are hopeful. They are finding that Mother Nature loaded many of her best cancer-fighting weapons in the foods we eat. Though no panacea exists-no single fruit or vegetable that can deliver total protection-studies show diets rich in particular foods may help us lower our risk.I asked a few cancer specialists and dietitians to name one or more foods that may have the ability to prevent or slow the progression of cancer. Here are the all-stars they recommend to their patients.GROUND FLAXSEEDSCancer-fighting agents: Lignans, fiber, Omega-3 essential fatty acidsMay help fight: Breast and prostate cancers”I recommend consuming cold-milled, ground flaxseed-maybe two to three tablespoons per day,” remarks Anup Lahiry, M.D., an oncologist and hematologist at the Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville, Georgia.Ground flaxseed is a highly concentrated source of secoisolariciresinol diglucoside (SDG) lignans, which are phytonutrients-plant-based micronutrients that offer many health benefits and may help stave off cancer.Lahiry suggests adding ground flaxseed to oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, smoothies, casseroles, chili, and dark sauces.BLUEBERRIESCancer-fighting agents: Dietary fiber, vitamin C, flavonoids, ellagic acidMay help fight: Cancers of the colon and rectum and possibly cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, lung and stomach”Blueberries seem to be on the top of everyone’s super food list, and for good reason,” says Rachel White, an oncology registered dietitian with the Wellstar Cancer Network in Georgia. “Not only are blueberries excellent sources of vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, and fiber, but also powerful phytochemicals, such as flavonoids and resveratrol.”At 85 calories per cup, blueberries are tasty whether washed and eaten by the handful or mixed in oatmeal, tossed atop cereal, or blended into a smoothie.LEGUMESCancer-fighting agents: Dietary fiber, folate, lignans, flavonoids, and inositolMay help fight: Colon, rectum, breast, prostate and pancreas cancersLegumes, which include black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), lentils, soybeans, and other beans, contain an abundance of health-promoting substances that may protect humans from cancer.”Uncooked, dried beans and canned beans provide the same benefits,” notes White. “If you choose canned beans, it’s best to go with those without added salt or drain and rinse them to remove as much sodium as possible. Legumes are rich in fiber, protein, vitamins, and phytochemicals and make delicious soups, salads and dips.”RED PEPPERSCancer-fighting agent: CapsaicinMay help fight: Prostate, stomach, and lung cancers; and leukemia”Red peppers contain capsaicin, a cancer-fighting component abundant in paprika, chili peppers, cayenne peppers, and other hot peppers,” says Colleen McCarthy, a registered and licensed dietitian at On Pointe Nutrition in Alpharetta, Georgia.She cites a 2006 study published in The Journal of Cancer Research by Akio Mori and others suggesting that capsaicin has a role in the management of prostate cancer.”Capsaicin down-regulates the expression of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) and androgen receptor (AR), and it also has a direct inhibitory effect on PSA transcription,” says McCarthy. “In further studies, capsaicin has shown promise in slowing the growth of prostate cancer and managing other aspects of the disease, too.”The hotter peppers-the torturous ones-contain the most capsaicin and may pack the biggest cancer-fighting punches.SWEET POTATOESCancer fighting agents: Alpha-carotene, beta caroteneMay help fight: Prostate and other cancersSweet potatoes, along with other foods rich in carotene (carrots, pumpkin, winter squash, citrus fruits, red sweet peppers, and tomatoes) may help reduce the risk of many types of cancer through their potent antioxidant capacity.”Consuming these foods may provide an anti-cancer effect by reducing the free radical oxidation rates of cells,” says McCarthy. “Eating a wide variety of foods rich in carotenoids will provide a better effect than a single consumption of one type of food rich in carotene.”TURMERICCancer-fighting agent: CurcuminMay help fight: Lung, breast, ovarian, gastrointestinal, and other cancers; leukemia; and melanomaTurmeric, the yellow spice found in Indian curries, contains the powerful cancer-fighting antioxidant, curcumin.”There’s a study from 2008 [P. Anand and others in Cancer Letters] suggesting curcumin may slow or prevent tumor growth,” notes McCarthy. “It reduces overall inflammation and has an overall benefit of interfering with many cell signal pathways such as cell cycle, cell apoptosis (cell death), reduction of inflammation, and cell metastasis.”Consider adding a dash of turmeric to soups, vegetables, and salad dressings, but a word of caution-consult with your doctor first because turmeric may interfere with other medications.ACTIVE CULTURE YOGURTCancer-fighting agents: Lactobacillus acidophilus and calciumMay help fight: Colon and bladder cancers”Yogurt with active cultures [containing living micro-organisms] is a probiotic that enhances healthy gut bacteria and the gut immune system,” remarks Daniel Dubovsky, M. D., an oncologist at Atlanta Cancer Care, a medical practice affiliated with Northside Hospital Cancer Institute. “In 2011, Pala published data indicating yogurt intake was associated with decreased colorectal cancer risk. And Larsson, from the Karolinska Institute, reported lower bladder cancer rates associated with the consumption of yogurt and cultured milk products.”BROCCOLICancer-fighting agents: Dietary fiber, sulfur compounds, indoles, phenols, folate, vitamin C, and glucosinolatesMay help fight: Colorectal, stomach, bladder, breast, and lung cancersAll cruciferous veggies (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, turnips) boast impressive cancer-fighting properties, but broccoli is a superstar.”Because of its fiber content, broccoli has a strong link to colorectal cancer prevention-especially in younger patients and those with histories of smoking,” says Laura Pearson, M.D., the medical director for North Fulton Hospital’s breast health program in Roswell, Georgia. “It contains sulfur compounds that act as antioxidants and rid the body of carcinogens and indoles that help block estrogen receptors which are important in hormone-sensitive breast cancers. It also contains phenols that scavenge free-radicals thought to be culprits in cancer formation.”Pearson warns her patients that an all-broccoli diet will not cure cancer.”Eat a variety of fresh, colorful, minimally-cooked fruits and vegetables,” she stresses. “A cheesy broccoli casserole tastes good, but steaming it or adding uncooked broccoli to a salad are better choices for disease prevention.”ALMONDSCancer-fighting agents:Benzaldehyde, fiber, alpha-tocopherol (a form of vitamin E)May Help Fight: Breast, prostate, and other cancersAlmonds are a tasty, abundant source of vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin with distinctive antioxidant properties that protect cells from the damaging, cancer-causing effects of free radicals.”They also contain benzaldehyde, a compound that researchers in Japan believe to be toxic to cancer cells,” says Amy Strattner, a registered dietitian at Northside Hospital Diabetes and Nutrition Services in metro Atlanta. “I suggest spreading almond butter on whole grain toast, serving a handful with apples for a high energy snack that provides cancer-fighting fiber, or drinking a glass of almond milk which also provides the body with calcium.”GREEN TEACancer-fighting agents: Polyphenols, in particular the catechins and the amino acid, theanineMay help fight: Stomach, esophageal, ovarian, colon and other cancersGreen tea, as well as other teas, contain catechins, compounds that scientists believe may help stop the growth of cancer cells and prevent cell mutations that contribute to cancer development.”Modern studies in both Asia and the West have shown encouraging results indicating that green tea contributes to fighting stomach, esophageal, ovarian, and colon cancers,” says Strattner. “It’s a great low-calorie beverage to sip on throughout the day.”SPINACHCancer-fighting agents: Glutathione, alpha lipoic acid, and the carotenoids beta carotene and luteinMay help fight:Colon, prostate, stomach, and breast cancers”There are about 90 publications so far regarding spinach and cancer with the most encouraging results noted in studies focusing on breast and prostate cancers,” says Strattner. “It affects cancer cell survival and inhibits inflammation.”She suggests topping sandwiches and burgers with spinach, adding leaves to omelets, or including some strawberries and watermelon to a bowl of the leafy greens to sweeten-up the dish.

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