Food can play an important part in reducing your risk of developing cancer. Let’s take a look at some of the science involved, along with some delicious recipes!
Why Diet Matters
In 1981, physiologists Richard Doll and Richard Peto published a study estimating that diet changes could have prevented approximately 35% of the United States’ cancer deaths.
Since that time, our knowledge of cancer has grown. However, none of the findings in the intervening 34 years have given reason to change this number.
To understand how different foods can affect your cancer risk, it helps to know a bit about the chemistry involved. For instance, cooking meat at high temperatures—especially charring it—will produce a type of carcinogen called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Conversely, vitamin C is an antioxidant known to reduce the buildup of carcinogenic nitrogen compounds.
Learning the root mechanics behind a cancer-fighting food or a carcinogen can help you identify other ways to reduce your risk. To go back to our example, HCAs are formed as a result of heavily cooking meat. So, having your steaks cooked rare or medium-rare produces anywhere from significantly reduced to negligible levels of HCA.
Now let’s take a look at a few specific cancers, the best foods to fight them, and some recommended recipes.
Colon Cancer-Fighting Foods
Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer and the third leading cause of cancer deaths. For this cancer, risk reduction is best left to a healthy dose of folate and fiber.
Folate helps by protecting your cells’ DNA from being damaged, which is the root mechanic behind cancers in general. Green vegetables and beans are easy sources of this.
Fiber helps by escorting waste swiftly through the digestive tract. This speeds up the expulsion of any carcinogens you may have swallowed, reducing the amount of time they have to get absorbed by your intestines and colon. Oats, wheat, and bran are all great sources of fiber.
Fiber-Full Banana Oatmeal Muffins
- 2 cups flour
- 1 cup quick-cooking oats
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 1/2 cups mashed bananas
- 2 eggs
- 1/3 cup butter, melted
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
- 2. In medium bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: flour, oatmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
- 3. In a separate bowl, combine the mashed bananas, eggs, vanilla, and butter.
- 4. Combine the banana mixture and the flour mixture, stirring just until the dry ingredients are moistened.
- 5. Spoon batter into greased muffin cups.
- 6. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until toothpick inserted into the center muffin comes out clean.
- 7. Let cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes.
- 8. Remove muffins from pan and let cool on wire rack.
Prostate Cancer-Fighting Foods
Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not preventable. Some of the big prostate cancer-fighting foods are broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables. This food family is rich in the indole-3-carbinol (I3C) antioxidant that help the body expel carcinogenic compounds. So, if you can’t resist an occasional steak, be sure to get a generous side of broccoli!
Watermelon and tomato are also good candidates thanks to lycopene, a pigment found in many red foods. Lycopene has antioxidant properties that are correlated to reduced prostate cancer rates, though the exact reason is unknown and still being studied. But who’s ever needed an excuse to enjoy an extra slice of juicy watermelon?
- 1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
- 1 head broccoli, cut into florets
- 1/2 cup egg product
- 2 tbsp wheat germ or flaxseed meal
- 2 tbsp cornflake crumbs
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- 1/8 tsp white pepper
- 1/4 tsp olive oil
- 1. Steam broccoli for two minutes.
- 2. Steam cauliflower for four minutes.
- 3. Sauté onions in olive oil until caramelized (about five minutes).
- 4. Puree broccoli, cauliflower, and onions in a food processor. Add eggs and wheat germ or flaxseed meal.
- 5. Season with sea salt and pepper.
- 6. Transfer to a greased 9×9 casserole dish.
- 7. Sprinkle with cornflake crumbs.
- 8. Bake in a 350ºF oven for about 45 minutes.
Cervical Cancer-Fighting Foods
Thanks to the implementation of Pap smears, cervical cancer has dropped to 14th place on the list of the most deadly cancers for American women. Since roughly 99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by a persistent human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, foods that can help fight HPV are also good at lowering cancer risk.
Conveniently, lycopene, our prostate-helping friend, is used to treat HPV infections. Furthermore, indole-3-carbinol (I3C), a chemical found in vegetables from the broccoli family, also has anti-estrogenic properties that can further protect against cervical cancer. Lastly, curcumin, the chemical that makes turmeric yellow, also inhibits HPV infections in a laboratory setting. With all this in mind, try out this recipe as one way to get more of these particular ingredients into your diet!
Creamy Tomato Risotto
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 1 cup Arborio rice
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups tomato sauce
- 2 quarts chicken stock, heated to a low simmer and kept warm
- 1 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 tbsp fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces (do not substitute with dried)
- 1. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan or wok.
- 2. Add the onion and sauté until it softens, becoming translucent and slightly golden (7-10 minutes).
- 3. Add the rice to the onions and fry, stirring until you hear the rice clicking against the sides of the pan. Turn the heat to medium-high. Add the wine to the pan. Cook, stirring, until all the wine has been absorbed.
- 4. Add the tomato sauce and one ladle of the warm stock to the rice and onions. Cook, stirring until the liquid is nearly absorbed. Don’t let the rice get completely dry.
- 5. Add two more ladles of the warm stock to the rice and cook, stirring, until it is nearly all absorbed. Repeat until the rice is nearly cooked.
- 6. Add the rest of the stock to the rice. Beat the butter and Parmesan into the rice until it looks creamy.
- 7. Stir in the basil leaves and cover the risotto tightly. Remove it from the heat and let it sit for 3-5 minutes.
- 8. Remove the lid. If the risotto seems dry, stir in a little more warm stock or water to get the right creamy consistency. Serve warm.
Breast Cancer-Fighting Foods
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women—roughly one in eight will be diagnosed with it in their lifetime. Stay in the safe seven by trying foods with selenium. Selenium helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, a form of internal clock that, among other things, governs how many estrogen receptors your cells produce. Since an increase in estrogen is theorized to increase the chance of breast cancer, a regulated rhythm can do wonders for your risk.
Tuna, portobello mushrooms, beef, and cottage cheese all contain selenium. Vitamin E is also a good idea, so add peanuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds to the recommended list. Now let’s see what we can whip up!
Green Tea-Mushroom Salmon
- 3 green tea bags
- 4 thin slices fresh ginger
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 2 wild salmon fillets
- 1 tbsp butter
- 4 cups mushrooms, sliced
- 1/4 cup dry red wine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tsp green onion
- 1. In a large saucepan, bring six cups of water to a boil.
- 2. Place green tea bags, ginger slices, and peppercorns in the pan, turn off the heat, and let steep for 10 minutes.
- 3. Remove tea bags, ginger, and peppercorns from tea broth with a slotted spoon.
- 4. Place salmon in tea broth and bring to a slow, low simmer. Cook for eight minutes, or until salmon is opaque and flaky.
- 5. Meanwhile, melt butter in a skillet over medium heat; add sliced mushrooms and sauté for five minutes, stirring regularly.
- 6. Stir red wine into mushrooms and cook for another five minutes or until most of the wine has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper if desired.
- 7. Divide salmon among four serving plates and top with sautéed mushrooms. Garnish with green onion.
Pancreatic Cancer-Fighting Foods
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth biggest cause of cancer death in the United States. Help keep your body’s insulin pump—the pancreas—safe by consuming pungent foods like horseradish and mustard, which contain glucosinolates. This substance, like I3C, is known to inhibit carcinogens and speed up their removal from the body
Perillyl alcohol is found in the oils of spearmint, peppermint, and cherries, and is shown to be able to regress pancreatic tumors to a small degree.
It may sound like an odd combination, but you can mix pungent and sweet ingredients for a potential pancreatic cancer-fighting boost! Here’s what we came up with:
Sweet ‘n’ Tangy Cherry Mustard Pork
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 8 (6- to 8-ounce) bone-in pork chops
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1/2 pound cherries, halved and pitted (or 1/2 cup dried cherries, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes and drained)
- 1. Preheat oven to 200°F.
- 2. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
- 3. Lightly season pork chops with salt and pepper, then add to skillet, working in batches if needed, and cook until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to an oven-proof platter or baking sheet and keep warm in oven.
- 4. Deglaze skillet with wine, scraping up browned bits, and reduce heat to medium.
- 5. Stir in mustard and add cherries. Season with salt and pepper.
- 6. When sauce begins to bubble, return pork to skillet, spooning sauce over the top; cover and reduce heat to medium-low.
- 7. Cook about five minutes; then rearrange pork so the chops on the bottom are now on the top and spoon sauce over them.
- 8. Cover and cook an additional five minutes or more, until pork is cooked through but still very slightly pink inside.
- 9. Place finished chops on a serving dish or directly onto plates.
As you might have noticed, a few food types popped up more than once. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts are some of the best cancer-fighting foods around because so many have antioxidant and carcinogen-inhibiting properties. Even if you’re in a rush and don’t have time to make a full meal, simply grabbing an orange or apple each day can do wonders for your long-term cancer risk.
When you do go into the kitchen, have fun experimenting with your dishes. Mix ingredients around and try new flavors. After all, there may not be an ultimate anti-cancer meal yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with one!
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“Prostate Cancer,” Cancer.org, last accessed April 7, 2015.
“Cervical Cancer Facts and Stats,” Cancer Screening & Diagnosis, last accessed April 7, 2015.
“Breast Cancer Facts,” The National Breast Cancer Foundation, last accessed April 7, 2015.
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Belanger, J.T., “Perillyl Alcohol: Applications in Oncology,” Alternative Medical Review 3, no. 6, 448-57; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9855569, last accessed April 7, 2015.