Anticancer foods – does such a thing even exist?
A diagnosis of cancer can be devastating, even if you know there is a cure. While treatments are many, prevention remains better than possible cures.
There are many ways one can reduce their risk of developing cancer. Avoiding smoking, lowering alcohol intake and regular exercise – all can help reduce your chances of developing cancer.
Probably the most important way to lower your cancer risk is consuming the right foods. I thought I would touch upon ‘anticancer’ foods, and hopefully by the time you reach the end of the article, you will realize that what you eat matters when it comes to cancer.
I will be touching upon foods that you can eat rather than spices like turmeric that have anticancer properties.
How Your Diet Can Increase Your Risk Of Cancer
First, I thought I would talk about how what you eat and how much you eat can increase your risk of cancer.
Low Fiber Diet
Fiber is an essential part of a nutritious diet. The more you eat, the more you protect your body against heart disease, digestive problems, and yes, cancer.
A diet low in fiber is generally seen in those who mostly eat non-vegetarian food. Meat and fish, while high in protein, lack any fiber.
Those who eat white bread or foods made from refined flour (biscuits, bakery items etc) also get no fiber in their diet.
If you recall, in an article elsewhere, I have spoken of soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber mixes with water in the gut, forming a gel that coats the inner lining of the bowel. This coating prevents harmful cholesterol and excessive sugar from being absorbed by the gut.
This has a protective effect on the body.
Insoluble fiber helps maintain a healthy digestive tract. It prevents you from becoming constipated.
Studies have found that consuming low fiber can increase your risk of bowel cancer.
Diet High In Red Meat
There are many of us who enjoy eating red meat regularly. The bad news is that there exists a strong link between red meat intake and colon cancer.
Remember that red meat, while high in protein, lacks fiber. When cooking red meat, compounds called heterocyclic amines are generated, which are carcinogenic (cancer forming).
Studies have found that these heterocyclic amines can increase the risk of breast cancer.
Overeating Is A Problem
We are a nation of over-eaters. Many of us can’t just stop a meal at a main course alone. Some want a starter and a dessert with every meal!
Ordering food in has become the norm, though it has come down a little during the current COVID crisis. Prior to this, people would order food almost every evening, mostly because their jobs were keeping them busy.
Not just that; eating more is being made more attractive through advertising. Portion sizes are expected to be large for the money that is spent on food.
The basic problem with how we eat in our country is that we consume too many calories. Some of our diets have over 3000 to 4000 calories sometimes, and we rarely realise it.
Even if you eat your veggies every day, having a high amount of calories in your diet on a regular basis can make you overweight.
Obesity has been estimated to cause 14% of all cancer deaths in men and around 20% in women.
In a study conducted in India, women who had a higher body mass index were more likely to develop breast cancer compared to those who had a normal weight.
Just by cutting down your calories and increasing your veggie intake, the risk of cancer can come down many fold.
High calorie foods include rice and rice based foods, fried items, snacks, bakery items and foods with added sugar in them.
Refined Flour Based Foods
Foods that are made from refined flour (maida) may be tasty, but they can harm your health. Refined wheat flour contents 78% less fiber, 74% less vitamins and 69% less minerals, according to the USDA Food Database.
In addition to this, refined flour based foods have a high glycemic index. This means that they increase the blood sugar values rapidly once they are eaten.
Of course, it is not just refined flour that can shoot up your sugars. Even simple cane sugar, honey and normal sugar we eat can have the same effect.
In other words, sugary foods that can increase your blood sugar levels rapidly can cause cancer.
So now that you have an idea of what foods can increase your risk of cancer, let’s take a look at some anticancer foods you could include in your diet.
Best Anticancer Foods You Can Eat
Here are some of my favorites –
Flax seeds are becoming a popular health supplement, mostly due to its high fiber content and presence of omega-3 fatty acids.
Flax seeds contain lignan – a compound that has anticancer effects. Mouse studies that have been conducted over years have found that a diet rich in flax seeds could lower the risk of breast cancer and it spreading as well.
There also appears to be a benefit of flax seed intake against prostate cancer in men. However, this effect is not seen with flax seed oil, but rather with whole flax seed.
Following a vegetarian diet can lower your chances of developing cancer. This has been proven time and again in clinical studies.
Numerous anticancer elements in veggies and fruits include vitamin C and E, folic acid, lycopene, dietary fiber, selenium and isoflavones.
In fact, the American Institute of Cancer Research states that multiple types of cancers can be prevented by just following a vegetarian diet.
In recent years, there has been a move towards ‘veganism’. This is a diet made of just vegetarian food, but with no dairy products (milk, curds, cheese etc). Generally, the risk of cancer is not lower than what a vegetarian diet confers, though it seems to have more benefit in prostate cancer.
Let’s take cruciferous vegetables – broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. These are probably the best anticancer foods, as they are rich in sulforophane, which has anticancer properties. Of these, broccoli is the most powerful.
Regular consumption of cruciferous veggies can lower your risk of breast cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, lung cancer and even prostate cancer.
Tomatoes contain lycopene, a compound that has protective effects against prostate cancer, and reduces the risk by up to 40%. Cooked tomatoes have more lycopene compared to raw ones, so better to choose the latter.
I often advise patients to eat different colors of vegetables. This is because different colored veggies have alpha and beta carotenoids, which have powerful cancer fighting properties. Carrots, carrot juice and pumpkins are amazing sources. Capsicum (traffic light – red, green and yellow) also contain carotenoids.
There remains a dictum of eating 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day. I am not sure where this number really came from, but I guess keeping this in mind makes it easier to ensure you get what your body needs. The more you eat, the better it is for you.
A single portion is a cupful of vegetables or a single fruit.
Foods Rich In Vitamin C
Citrus fruits, especially amla (gooseberry), are excellent sources of vitamin C. Vitamin C has powerful antioxidant and anticancer effects, and is sometimes used as an intravenous medicine in cancer therapy.
Doses given in cancer treatments are significantly greater than what is prescribed as a daily supplement of vitamin C.
How Much Fruits And Vegetables Should You Eat For Anticancer Effects?
It is advised by some experts to have 10 servings of vegetables and 4 or more servings of fruits a day to protect yourself from cancer.
Honestly speaking, it might be quite hard to keep track of that.
If you really want to reap the anticancer effects of foods, then you need to include them in good quantities in your daily diet.
What Is The Best Anticancer Diet Then?
In a nutshell you should include all the following that I have listed in the table below:
You could lower your risk of developing cancer with these anticancer foods. Choose well and stick to not just a good diet, but also an exercise routine.
Dr Vivek Baliga is a medical practitioner and the director of a diagnostic center – Baliga Diagnostics – in Bangalore. He specializes in diabetes and heart disease, and is a visiting consultant in Internal Medicine at corporate hospitals. He is married and has one son.