6 Cancer-Fighting Foods to Add to Your Diet
A healthy diet is one way you can fend off cancer—and protect your body against other diseases as well.
Featured Recipe: Broccoli with Balsamic Mushrooms
There's no surefire way to eat to beat cancer. Your risks are determined by a variety of factors, from your genes and your environment to your race and even your occupation. And while your overall diet is more important than eating a quota of fruits and vegetables daily, research shows these six foods may be particularly potent when it comes to cancer prevention.
Featured Recipe: Muesli with Raspberries
Berries get their rich color from compounds called anthocyanins, which act as potent antioxidants in the body and shield cells from damage. Berries also contain ellagic acid and vitamin C. In laboratory studies, these compounds appear to stymie the growth of a long list of tumors, including those of the breast, cervix, skin, lungs and digestive tract.
In one study, researchers from Georgetown University School of Medicine incorporated black raspberries into the diet of mice with breast cancer, and found that, after six months, their tumors were 70 percent smaller than those of mice on the control diet. Likewise, a recent study found that cancer cells exposed to blueberry extract for 24 hours before radiation for cancer treatment were more likely to be damaged and die off as a result of the radiation than cells that were treated with blueberry extract or radiation alone.
People are not mice, of course, but promising findings like this have led to human studies with berry compounds. In one study, volunteers who ate blueberry powder daily (the equivalent of 1 2/3 cups fresh blueberries) for six weeks experienced rises in natural killer cells, an immune system component involved in fighting cancer.
Ways to Eat More Berries to Fight Cancer
- Toss strawberries into a watercress or arugula salad.
- Simmer blackberries or raspberries with a splash of water until they begin to break down. Swirl into plain yogurt.
- Make a relish with chopped blueberries, orange zest, shallot and jalapeño. Serve with pork chops or fish.
- Blend with yogurt and a banana, then pour into ice-pop molds and freeze.
- Stir into warm steel-cut oats, and sweeten with cinnamon and a touch of honey.
Try These: Healthy Strawberry Recipes
Featured Recipe: Cauliflower Steaks with Parmesan Cauliflower Rice & Romesco
Broccoli has long been a star in the cancer-prevention world, dating back to studies two decades ago that found an association between eating cruciferous vegetables and a lower risk of cancer. Further research found high amounts of potentially anti-cancer compounds in broccoli and broccoli sprouts.
Crucifers-which include other members of the cabbage family, like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale-have a complex chemical composition, so it's unclear what in particular is giving them their cancer-fighting power. They are rich in potassium, folate, vitamin C and a cocktail of phytochemicals, all of which might help ward off the disease. Lab studies suggest sulforaphane, a compound particularly abundant in broccoli, might make cells less susceptible to carcinogens (though frozen broccoli lacks this chemical).
Despite the numerous potentially cancer-killing compounds, studies in people haven't consistently found protection. A 2013 analysis in the Annals of Oncology found that people who ate the most crucifers lowered their colon cancer risk by 18 percent compared with those who ate the least. A 2015 meta-analysis looked at the association between cruciferous vegetables and pancreatic cancer and found that a high intake might reduce the risk of the disease. Other studies have also seen reductions in risk for prostate and lung cancer, but more research is needed to understand if the benefits bear out.
Ways to Eat More Cruciferous Vegetables to Fight Cancer
- Sauté chopped broccoli and thin slices of garlic in extra-virgin olive oil. Serve sprinkled with Pecorino Romano cheese.
- Add kale to a smoothie made with frozen banana, apple, pineapple and plain yogurt.
- Serve shredded cabbage instead of lettuce as a taco topper.
- Toss individual Brussels sprout leaves in oil, then roast until crispy.
- Slice cauliflower into thick slabs or "steaks" and cook over high heat to turn the exterior crispy and browned.
Try These: Healthy Brussels Sprouts Recipes
Featured Recipe: Zucchini Ribbon Salad with Cannellini Beans & Anchovies
Beans are loaded with fiber and protein, which could help you feel full on fewer calories and, thus, lower your risk of obesity (and therefore cancer risk). Their fiber content feeds the healthy bacteria in the intestine and keeps the cells lining the digestive tract healthy, minimizing cancer risk. They also contain folate-associated with reduced risk of colorectal, breast and other cancers.
Whatever the reason, regularly eating legumes can be a powerful prevention tool, especially with cancers of the digestive system: in one study out of Loma Linda University, people who ate legumes at least three times a week cut their risk of colon cancer by 33 percent. Additionally, a meta-analysis found that prostate cancer risk fell by 3.7 percent for every 20 grams (less than 1/4 cup) of legumes a man ate in a day.
Ways to Eat More Legumes to Fight Cancer
- Make a creamy dip in your food processor with rinsed canned beans, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and dried herbs, such as thyme.
- Toss drained chickpeas with corn oil and your choice of spice blend. Bake at 400°F until crispy and golden, stirring once or twice, 30 to 40 minutes.
- Swap canned beans for half the ground beef to lighten up a meaty chili.
- Rinse canned beans, and toss with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion and a simple dressing for an easy, filling lunch.
- Cook beans in unsalted chicken stock with a bay leaf and several garlic cloves in a pressure cooker for a super-simple side.
Try These: Healthy Bean Recipes
Red & Pink Produce
Featured Recipe: Red Grapefruit Salad with Avocado & Pistachios
Tomatoes get their ruddy color from lycopene, which also makes grapefruit, watermelon and papaya pink. In animal studies, lycopene has been shown to protect against prostate and colorectal cancer. Though studies have been provocative, they have not been consistent in people.
A 2018 meta-analysis from the University of Illinois looked at 30 published studies and found that higher total tomato consumption and intake of cooked-tomato foods were both associated with reduced risk of prostate cancer.
Here's a twist for pasta lovers: go for the sauce, because studies suggest that eating cooked tomatoes may result in higher blood levels of lycopene than noshing on raw tomatoes or drinking tomato juice (cooking perhaps makes the compound more easily absorbed).
Ways to Eat More Red & Pink Produce to Fight Cancer
- Dice watermelon, red onion and tomato; toss with basil, feta cheese and lemon juice to make a salsa.
- Slow-roast halved plum tomatoes at 300°F for 2 hours. Serve, chopped, on toast as bruschetta.
- Squeeze lime over sliced papaya. Sprinkle with chili powder and salt.
- Blend watermelon with lime juice, and pour into pop molds. Freeze for a low-calorie treat.
- Grill sliced grapefruit with halloumi. Sprinkle with chopped basil and a sprinkle of salt.
Try These: Healthy Tomato Recipes
Featured Recipe: Caramelized Balsamic Onions
Pungent vegetables in this class include onions, leeks and chives, but garlic has been the standout for cancer protection. A review published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research concluded that the strongest evidence of cancer defense is for onions and garlic against digestive tract cancers-and other research suggests garlic lovers are less likely to develop pancreatic and breast tumors.
However, a study in the Journal of Breast Cancer found that garlic and leeks may be protective against breast cancer, but high consumption of cooked onions was actually associated with increased risk for the disease.
There is not yet enough evidence to say exactly how much you need to eat to lower your cancer risk. And despite claims either way, research has not concluded whether eating garlic raw or cooked is best for fighting cancer.
Ways to Eat More Allium Vegetables to Fight Cancer
- Mash garlic and salt together and whisk into a vinaigrette.
- Snip chives or scallions into scrambled eggs.
- Caramelize onions until soft and golden and use as a topping for sandwiches or pizza.
- Drizzle whole garlic bulbs with olive oil, wrap in foil and roast at 400°F for 40 minutes until tender. Squeeze the garlic out of the skins and blend in a food processor for a sweet and pungent spread or dip.
- Grill whole green onions on a hot grill. Drizzle with a tart vinaigrette for a surprisingly flavorful side.
Featured Recipe: Charred Green Beans with Mustard Vinaigrette & Hazelnuts
One of the largest studies to look at the protective effects of eating nuts, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that those who ate 1 ounce of nuts at least five times a week were 11 percent less likely to die from any kind of cancer. Of particular interest are walnuts, which have been shown in animal studies to impede the growth of tumor cells.
For example, one study in Nutrition Journal found that high nut consumption was strongly associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer in both women and men. The reasons for the protective effects of nuts are still being studied, but researchers point to a number of compounds that appear to slow cancer, including resveratrol, ellagitannins, anacardic acid and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids.
Ways to Eat More Nuts to Fight Cancer
- Add chopped almonds or walnuts to chicken or tuna salad.
- Grind almonds or pecans into crumbs in a food processor; use as "breading" for chicken cutlets.
- Make chocolate bark: Melt dark chocolate, stir in your favorite nuts and spread on wax paper; chill until cold. Break into bite-size pieces.
- Blend water-soaked cashews with nutritional yeast and salt for a surprisingly cheesy vegan sauce.
- Combine nuts with unsweetened dried fruit and chunks of dark chocolate for a grab-and-go trail mix snack.
Try These: Healthy Recipes with Nuts & Seeds