In 2008, researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center set out to understand what was driving the global cancer epidemic. They conducted a meta-analysis of studies in peer-reviewed journals and then published their own summary report in the journal Pharmaceutical Research.1
The researchers concluded that only 5-10 percent of all cancers have their roots in genetic defects.
The other 90- 95 percent are caused by a combination of diet, lifestyle and environmental factors.
They found, not surprisingly, that of all cancer deaths, 25-30 percent are caused by tobacco consumption. But there was another factor that the researchers determined was even more significant than smoking: diet.
In fact, the researchers reported, diet causes 30-35 percent of all cancer cases worldwide—totaling more than two million deaths per year. Based on their analysis of all the available data, what cancer-prevention diet did these scientists recommend? "Increased ingestion of fruits and vegetables . . . [and] minimal meat consumption."
Mother Nature gives us a huge pharmacy of natural foods, herbs and spices that are stunningly effective in promoting health. And the only side-effects of feasting on nature's pantry turn out to be good ones.
Meanwhile, the American Institute for Cancer Research reports that up to 70 percent of all cancers can be prevented with lifestyle changes.2 Their number one dietary recommendation is: "Choose predominantly plant-based diets rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits, legumes and minimally processed starchy staple foods."
Here's a look at some of the top foods that are especially potent in helping to fight cancer.
The magical fungi
The ancient Egyptians believed that eating mushrooms brought long life. Now modern scientists are likewise discovering that mushrooms have some fascinating medicinal properties.
In 2004, researchers from the University of Western Australia in Perth conducted a study of 2,000 Chinese women, about half of whom had breast cancer.3 The scientists reviewed the women's eating habits and factored out other variables that contribute to cancer, such as being overweight, lack of exercise, and smoking, and they came to a startling conclusion about mushrooms.
Women who consumed at least one-third of an ounce (about 10 g) of fresh mushrooms per day (less than one typical-sized mushroom, and less than two teaspoons) were 64 percent less likely to develop breast cancer.
Dried mushrooms had a slightly smaller protective effect, reducing the risk by around half. What was even more impressive is that women who combined eating mushrooms with regular consumption of green tea saw an even greater benefit—they reduced their breast cancer risk by an astounding 89 percent.
Why are mushrooms so powerful? They are thought to protect against breast and other hormone-related cancers because they inhibit an enzyme called aromatase, which is crucial to the body's production of estrogen.4
Mushrooms also contain specialized proteins called lectins that recognize cancer cells and prevent these cells from growing and dividing. (Lectins, a type of carbohydrate- binding protein, have gotten a bad reputation in some circles, but some of them, such as the ones in mushrooms, can be beneficial.)
Which types of mushrooms are best? There are thousands of varieties, and our understanding of their properties is growing rapidly—but this knowledge is still in its infancy.5
All edible mushrooms we know of, including button, white, cremini, shiitake, oyster, portobello, maitake, turkey tail and reishi mushrooms, contain bioactive compounds with the potential for potent anticancer activity. These mushroom phytochemicals have anticancer effects that show promise against stomach, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers.6
But it's important to cook mushrooms and generally not to eat them raw. Mushrooms contain agaritine, a natural toxin that has been found to be carcinogenic. Agaritine is destroyed by heat, so as long as you cook mushrooms, you don't have anything to worry about. (And of course, never eat wild mushrooms unless you're absolutely certain they're edible and not poisonous.)
Since I heard about the power of mushrooms, I've made it a habit to eat cooked ones almost every day. Searing or roasting them allows them to caramelize, which highlights their fantastic umami flavor and satisfying texture. You can enjoy mushrooms sautéed with greens, on top of a salad or pizza, on warm and creamy polenta, blended into a soup, grilled like a burger or stirred into soba noodles with ginger and garlic.
Cruciferous vegetables have four-petal flowers that resemble a cross or "crucifer." Cabbage is the best known, but other cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, arugula, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, turnips and collards.
When it comes to protecting you from cancer, cabbage and the other crucifers could be some of the most powerful nutritional superheroes on the planet.
Researchers have found that components in these veggies can protect you from free radicals that can damage your cells' DNA.7 Cruciferous vegetables might also help you eliminate cancer-causing chemicals, and studies have linked increased consumption of cruciferous vegetables with a decrease in rates of breast, lung, colorectal and prostate cancers.8
Here's an explanation of how cruciferous veggies work their magic: they contain compounds called glucosinolates and an enzyme called myrosinase. When we blend, chop or chew these vegetables, we break up the plant cells, allowing myrosinase to come into contact with glucosinolates.
This initiates a chemical reaction that produces isothiocyanates (ITCs). ITCs have been shown to detoxify and remove carcinogens and to stimulate a process called apoptosis, in which cancer cells self-destruct.
Cruciferous veggies are good for you and for your cells, too. Cruciferous vegetables also provide vitamin C, known for protecting cells as an antioxidant and for supporting the immune system. And most are good sources of manganese, folate, potassium, dietary fiber and carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, which promote cell communication and help control abnormal cells.
Enjoy cruciferous vegetables raw and shredded (try making a coleslaw), or try them steamed, baked, sautéed, in a wrap, or even broiled. Broccoli adds a beautiful emerald color when pureed into a rich soup. Sautéed collards are superb when tossed with pasta and caramelized onions.
Cauliflower is delightful in creamy Indian curries served atop steaming hot quinoa or fragrant basmati rice. Kale is wonderful wilted into a pot of hearty Italian minestrone. The possibilities are endless—and exquisite.
Celery is mostly water, and it's rarely regarded as a nutritional powerhouse. But this crunchy food has been known for its health-giving properties since the ninth century, when it was used as a medicine.9
According to studies performed in China, eating just two medium-sized stalks of celery two or three times per week could reduce your risk of lung cancer by an amazing 60 percent.10 Other studies have found celery to be potentially effective at killing ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, breast and liver cancer cells.11
What makes celery such a powerful anticancer food? Its crispy green stalks contain two anticancer compounds, apigenin and luteolin—both of which are bioactive flavonoids that work as antioxidants and neutralize free radicals in the body.
Apigenin is effective at causing apoptosis (cell suicide) in many types of cancer cells.12 In a 2013 test tube study, it was found to kill up to 86 percent of lung cancer cells.13 Apigenin is also a powerful anti-inflammatory that rivals commercial anti-inflammatory drugs.14
As for luteolin, it may be able to short-circuit the replication cycle of cancer cells. In a study published in the journal BMC Gastroenterology, researchers discovered that luteolin blocked signal pathways necessary for the growth of colorectal cancer cells.15
In one laboratory study, mice were fed a strong mutagen, or cancer-causing compound, to induce fibrosarcoma (a form of bone cancer).16 When these mice were given luteolin in their diet, researchers noted a nearly 50 percent drop in tumor rates, and slower tumor progression as well. (Note that I am not in favor of animal studies, which are often cruel and don't necessarily apply to humans.)
Celery is naturally rich in vitamins A, C and K, folate, potassium and more. It's been found to help with calming your nervous system, aiding digestion, reducing inflammation and lowering blood pressure.17 Because it's rich in fiber, celery can also help prevent constipation.
Chopped celery adds a juicy crunch to all kinds of salads, and you can cook it into soups, stew and casseroles. It's a lovely addition to green juices and green smoothies, and it can be delicious with a dollop of hummus or another tasty dip.
For a timeless treat, destring a stalk and smear peanut butter down the middle. Adding a few raisins creates a favorite childhood snack known as "ants on a log."
Buckets for cancer?
Starting in 2010, the largest grassroots breast cancer advocacy group in the world, a group called Susan G. Komen for the Cure, launched a partnership with the fast food chain KFC in a US-wide "Buckets for the Cure" campaign.
KFC took every chance it could drum up to trumpet the fact that it donated 50 cents to Komen for every pink bucket of chicken sold.1
For its part, the charity announced on its website that "KFC and Susan G. Komen for the Cure are teaming up... [to] spread educational messaging via a major national campaign which will reach thousands of communities served by nearly 5,000 KFC restaurants."2
How often do you think this "educational messaging" provided information about the critical importance diet plays in maintaining a healthy weight and preventing cancer?
How often do you think it referred to the many studies that, according to the National Cancer Institute's website, "have shown that an increased risk of developing colorectal, pancreatic and breast cancer is associated with high intakes of well-done, fried or barbecued meats"?3
If you guessed zero, you're exactly right.
Making anti-cancer foods part of your regular diet
Option 1: Bring cooked mushrooms into your life! Make a recipe that features them.
Option 2: Find a delicious way to prepare a cruciferous vegetable (cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, turnips or collards), using one of the following ideas for inspiration:
1) Stir-fry: Thinly slice your cruciferous vegetable and stir-fry it in olive oil, along with an assortment of other favorite vegetables, onions and garlic. Add soy sauce and any desired spices, and serve atop quinoa, rice or another whole grain.
2) Salad: Thinly slice your chosen vegetable and toss with avocado, fresh lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, salt and nutritional yeast—then top with roasted pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds.
3) Buddha bowl: Roast or sauté the vegetable and pair with quinoa, chopped walnuts, shredded dark leafy greens, baked tofu and a dab of tahini.
Option 3: Take the triple-health challenge. Make a meal that includes all three of these anticancer powerhouses.
Excerpted from 31-Day Food Revolution by Ocean Robbins (Hay House, 2018)