Top 12 Cancer-Fighting Foods
Cancer is recognized worldwide to be a major health problem affecting millions of people each year. More than 1 million people in the United States alone get cancer each year, and as of 2009, a total of 562,340 deaths from cancer were projected to occur in the United States yearly. (1)
Cancer is a systemic disease with various causes, some of which include a poor diet, toxin exposure, nutrient deficiencies and to some extent genetics. One extremely important way to prevent and/or treat cancer is nutritionally, through eating a nutrient-dense diet and avoiding things that are known to increase cancer risk. But for many people navigating the modern-day food system often seems overwhelming. Ingredients found in ultra-processed foods are being blamed for everything health-related, from cancer and diabetes, to reduced kidney function and bone loss. Only adding to the confusion, sometimes even the way we cook otherwise-healthy foods puts them in the cancer-causing foods category.
Unfortunately, until food manufacturers are forced to clean up the ingredients they use in their products, it’s up to us to avoid the worst kinds and to choose cancer-fighting foods. Researchers have known about the dangers associated with some unhealthy habits and cancer-causing foods for decades, while others are just now emerging as possible culprits. Below I’m outlining the association between certain cooking techniques, unhealthy ingredients found in processed foods, and the risk for developing cancer.
In order to overcome their disease, many cancer survivors have been fortunate enough to use a combination of natural cancer treatments in conjunction with conventional medical treatments. Today, the early combination of chemotherapy and nutrition therapy is able to save the lives of thousands of cancer patients. This duel approach can help support the entire body and mind in the healing process, which sometimes be long and very difficult. Certainly when it comes to cancer prevention, more research is still needed. But for now, I’ll share the types of foods and ingredients I’d recommend avoiding most, plus tips for how to transition to eating an anti-cancer diet.
Are You Eating Enough Cancer-Fighting Foods Every Day?
While we often think of the word “cancer” as one type of disease, this term actually encompasses over 100 different cellular disorders in the body. Cancer refers to uncontrolled cell division that leads to a tumor or abnormal cell growth. When abnormal cells divide without control, they can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body, including the blood and lymphatic systems.
What does work when it comes to lowering inflammation and fighting free radical damage? The key is consuming plenty of cancer-fighting foods with antioxidants and natural anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. This means avoiding packaged and processed foods and focusing on only those that do not contain antibiotics, chemicals or toxins. Buying foods that are organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised and additive-free can greatly lower the toxic load of your diet.
Findings from the 2010 European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) that looked at dietary factors associated with higher cancer risks showed that there’s significant associations between cancer risk and low intakes of certain nutrients. (2) Data from the investigation that was published in the European Journal of Cancer showed an inverse association between higher intakes of vitamin C, carotenoids, retinol, α-tocopherol and fiber with overall cancer risk.
After following over 519,978 participants living in 10 European nations, results showed that those who most closely followed a style of eating similar to the Mediterranean diet had the most protection against cancer. High intake of cancer-fighting foods like vegetables, fruit, fish, calcium-rich foods and fiber was associated with a decreased risk of colorectal, lung and breast cancers, while red and processed meat intake, alcohol intake, unhealthy body mass index (BMI), and abdominal obesity were associated with an increased risk. Being physically active and obtaining enough vitamin D also helped lower cancer susceptibility.
Foods and Habits that Increase Your Cancer Risk
Inflammation is the underlying issue that dictates cancerous tumor initiation, progression and growth. Studies suggest that 30 percent to 40 percent of all kinds of cancer can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle and dietary measures! (3) And other sources claim that this number is in fact much higher, with around 75 percent of cancer cases being lifestyle-related.
What makes some foods carcinogens (in other words cancer-causing) and others cancer-fighters? Foods that potentially contribute to cancer can include any number of chemicals, pesticides, preservatives and additives. For example, these are some of the factors that cause certain foods to be very unhealthy— not only potentially increasing your risk for cancer, but also causing problems like allergies, leaky gut, obesity and inflammation:
- Pesticides and Herbicides: Industrial farming practices have loaded our produce, air, water, soil and animals at the bottom of the food chain with noxious chemicals. The best way to avoid consuming pesticides is to buy organic and ideally locally-grown foods.
- Animal Products with Hormones and Antibiotics: Conventional meat and dairy products are often produced using antibiotics and hormones which help increase production, but can also cause effects such as estrogen disruption once consumed. Don’t be fooled by “natural” or “free-range” labels, which don’t always say much about how food is produced. Buy pasture-fed, locally raised animal products that are labeled as hormone and antibiotic-free.
- Added Sugar & Artificial Sweeteners: Recently studies have linked higher sugar diets to increased risk for certain types of cancer. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharine and sucralose may generate damaging free radicals in the body. High fructose corn syrup, although manufacturers refer to it as a “natural” sweetener, is highly processed, artificial and capable of contributing to obesity and yeast growth, among other negative health effects.
- Food Additives: Nitrates, sulfites, food dyes and coloring and MSG have all been linked to free radical damage in the body. The best way to avoid these is to stay away from products that contain unknown and unpronounceable ingredients.
- Pasteurization: It’s not just milk that is pasteurized (heated to very high heats) in order to kill bacteria. Yogurts, fruit juices, and many of the foods in our grocery stores have been treated with a high heat process that destroys nutrients and generates free radicals in the body.Pasteurization is used as a substitute for proper sanitation and to unnaturally prolong the shelf life of foods.There isn’t much evidence directly linking pasteurization to cancer, but pasteurized foods can still be problematic when it comes to increasing inflammation and gut-related problems.
Here are examples of some cancer-causing foods you might not realize are in your diet:
1. Processed Meats
While quality meats, fish and dairy products can be included in an anti-cancer diet, processed meats are definitely something to avoid. The American Cancer Society states on their website that “The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified processed meat as a carcinogen, something that causes cancer. And it has classified red meat as a probable carcinogen, or something that probably causes cancer.” (4) A recent meta-analysis of 800 studies found evidence that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day (equal to about 4 strips of bacon or one hot dog) increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
Processed meats are those that have been treated, altered or preserved to improve taste and prolong freshness. They can contain additives such as nitrates and tend to be very high in sodium. A clue that is a meat is processed is if it’s been prepared in any of the following ways: salting, curing, smoking. Examples of processed meats include hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, and some deli meats/cold-cuts. (5)
2. Fried, Burnt & Overly-Cooked Foods
In early 2017, Britain’s Food Standards Agency launched a campaign to help people better understand, and to avoid, the toxin called acrylamide. Acrylamide is found in things like cigarette smoke and is also used in industrial processes like making dyes and plastics. What’s surprising is that acrylamide is also a chemical that forms on certain foods, especially starchy foods like bread, crackers, cakes and potatoes, when they are cooked for long periods at high temperatures. (6)
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen” based on data showing it can increase the risk of some types of cancer in lab animals. (7) Acrylamide is mainly found in highly-cooked plant foods like potato and grain products, such as French fries, potato chips, and to some extent coffee. The chemical reaction occurs when certain starchy foods are cooked above about 250° F. This causes sugars and the amino acid asparagine to create acrylamide. Note: Acrylamide does not form (or forms at lower levels) in dairy, meat, and fish products.
3. Added Sugar
Sugar can do more than increase your calorie intake and contribute to an expanding waistline— high consumption of added sugar has also been associated with increased cancer risk. There’s evidence that added sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup, may increase the risk of esophageal cancer, small intestine cancer, colon cancer and breast cancer. (8, 9, 10) A number of studies have found that sugar not only contributes to problems like obesity and diabetes, but is also linked to increased growth of tumors and metastasis.
Here’s another reason to avoid too much sugar: studies have found that people getting 17 to 21 percent of calories from added sugar face a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to those who got just 8 percent of their calories from sugar. (11)
4. Foods High In Additives
A 2016 study published in Cancer Research discovered a link between common food additives and colon cancer. Researchers at Georgia State University’s Institute for Biomedical Sciences found that mice that regularly ingested the dietary emulsifiers called polysorbate-80 andcarboxymethylcellulose experienced exacerbated tumor development and increased, low-grade inflammation and colon carcinogenesis. (12)
These emulsifiers act as “detergent-like” ingredients in the gut, significantly changing the species composition of the gut microbiome. Alterations in bacterial species can result in bacteria expressing more flagellins and lipopolysaccharides; in other words, changes in the microbiome can interfere with functions of the immune system, promote inflammation and increase harmful gene expressions. What types of processed foods and products contain these emulsifiers? Examples include dairy products such as ice cream, creamy beauty products, toothpaste, mouthwash, laxatives, diet pills, water-based paints, detergents and even vaccines.
5. Rice Products
Drinking water contaminated with arsenic can increase a person’s risk of lung, skin and bladder cancers. That’s why there are clear limits set for the amount of arsenic allowed in water. But what about the arsenic present in the food supply? Turns out, most Americans get more arsenic from the foods in their diet than from the water they drink. So is arsenic poisoning from foods like rice something you need to consider?
While babies potentially face the highest risk, excess arsenic isn’t good for any of us. A 2012 Consumer Reports investigation found arsenic in every brand of infant rice cereals it tested – nearly ten times the legal limit for drinking water! Subsequent testing was even more dire: just one serving of infant rice cereal can put children over the weekly maximum advised by Consumer Reports. (13)
According to the The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) website, “Heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead are naturally present in water and soil. In some places, intense concentrations exist as a result of industrial pollution and decades of agricultural use of lead- and arsenic-based pesticides.” (11) Organizations like the EWG and the World Health Organization now recommend limiting consumption of rice and rice-based foods (including those containing rice flour) when possible and instead eat a varied diet of healthy lower-arsenic grains and sweeteners.
Just like with heart disease, diabetes, leaky gut syndrome and other autoimmune disorders, free radical damage or oxidative stress from inflammation is truly at the root of cancer formation. What does this mean in terms of choosing the very best cancer-fighting foods that you can? Lots of fruit and vegetables can help lower the risk of cancer and offer protective elements so these should be the bases of your diet. On top of that, obtaining enough healthy proteins and fatty acids keeps your immune system working properly and prevents muscle wasting, deficiencies, or hormonal and nerve problems.
Top 12 Cancer-Fighting Foods
1. Leafy Green Vegetables
Leafy greens are the cornerstone of any healthy diet since they’re exceptionally rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes, yet very low in calories, fats, sodium and other toxins. Leafy greens of all kinds — nutritious spinach, kale, collard greens, romaine, arugula salad, watercress, etc. — are rich in antioxidants known to combat cancer, including vitamin C and beta-carotene (a type of vitamin A).
And the benefits keep coming; as natural sources of glucosinolates, they also contain antibacterial and antiviral properties, inactivate carcinogens, help reprogram cancer cells to die off, and prevent tumor formation and metastasis. These powerhouse chemicals are known to break down during the chewing and digestion process into biologically active compounds that prevent cancer cells growth, which are referred to as indoles, thiocyanates and isothiocyanates.
Isothiocyanates (ITCs) found in leafy greens, which are made from glucosinolates, have been reported to help detox your body at the cellular level. Add a handful of leafy greens to your lunch and dinner to increase your nutrient intake; to make obtaining them simpler, try juicing vegetables for near perfect health. Vegetable juices are very easy to digest and make yourself at home. The Gerson diet meal plan even advises cancer patients to drink 13 glasses of freshly prepared juice daily!
2. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables are known to be powerful cancer killers and some of the best vitamin C foods widely available. Many are rich in glutathione, known as the body’s “master antioxidant” since it has high free-radical-scavenging abilities. Nearly all members of the brassica family of cruciferous vegetables are nutrient-dense sources of a family of phytochemicals called isothiocyanates that are linked to cancer prevention. In addition to isothiocyanates, cruciferous veggies like cabbage and broccoli also contain sulforaphanes and indoles — two types of strong antioxidants and stimulators of detoxifying enzymes that protect the structure of DNA.
Add one or two kinds — including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage or Brussels sprouts — to three mostly plant-based meals daily in the form of roasted veggies, soups or stir fries, or dip them into hummus or Greek yogurt for a healthy, fast snack. Additionally, many other vegetables are beneficial for lowering cancer risk, including onions, zucchini, asparagus, artichokes, peppers, carrots and beets.
The ORAC scores of nearly all berries are very high, making them some of the top high-antioxidant foods in the world. Blueberries, raspberries, cherries, strawberries, goji berries, camu camu and blackberries are easy to find and use in numerous types of recipes — which is good news considering they supply vitamin C, vitamin A and gallic acid, a powerful antifungal/antiviral agent that increases immunity.
Berries are especially rich in proanthocyanidin antioxidants, which have been observed to have anti-aging properties in several animal studies and are capable of lowering free radical damage. High amounts of phenols, zeaxanthin, lycopene, cryptoxanthin, lutein and polysaccharides are other berry benefits. Less familiar “superfoods” mulberry, camu camu and goji berries have been used in traditional Chinese medicine since around 200 B.C. to increase immunity and energy, so look for those in powder or dried form in health food stores and online.
4. Brightly Orange-Colored Fruits and Veggies (Citrus Fruits, Squash, Sweet Potatoes, etc.)
Brightly colored pigments found in plant foods are a sure sign that they’re beaming with phytochemicals, especially carotenoid antioxidants. This is exactly the reason you want to “eat the rainbow” and vary the colors of the foods on your plate.
Carotenoids (alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, cryptoxanthin) are derivatives of vitamin A found in many citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, berries, pumpkin, squashes and other plant foods. (14) One of the most researched is beta-carotene, an essential nutrient for immune functioning; detoxification; liver health; and fighting cancers of the skin, eyes and organs. Two nutrients that give these foods their signature dark hues include lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to help prevent eye and skin-related disorders since they act as antioxidants that filter harmful high-energy blue wavelengths, protecting healthy cells in the process.
When it comes to carbohydrate-rich veggies, studies show that complex carbs, including sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, other tubers and whole-grain foods, is related to a reduced risk of several types of cancer, particularly of the upper digestive tract. This is likely due to a favorable role of fiber, but the issue is still open to discussion. In contrast, refined grain intake and high glycemic load foods are not apart of an anti-cancer diet. These have been associated with increased risk of different types of cancer, including breast and colorectal. (15)
5. Fresh Herbs and Spices
Turmeric, which contains the active ingredient curcumin, is one of the most powerful ingredients in an anti-cancer diet because it’s been shown to decrease tumor size and fight colon and breast cancer. Along with easy-to-use black pepper, turmeric absorption is enhanced and better able to fight inflammation. Aim for one teaspoon of turmeric powder and 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper or more daily, which can easily be used in a tonic drink, with eggs or in a veggie stir fry. You can also take curcumin supplements; aim for 1,000 milligrams daily.
Additionally, other herbs that act as immune system boosters include ginger, raw garlic, thyme, cayenne pepper, oregano, basil and parsley — which can easily be used in many recipes, juices, dressings and smoothies.
6. Organic Meats
Organic meats including beef or chicken liver are recommended on many cancer-fighting diets since they’re considered some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet and extremely high in vitamin B12. Consuming organic meats as part of a “nose to tail” approach to eating animal proteins provides minerals that help cleanse the liver and enhance the ability to remove toxins from the blood and digestive tract.
Detoxifying with rich sources of selenium, zinc and B vitamins helps purify blood; produce the bile needed to digest fats; balance hormones naturally; and store essential vitamins, minerals and iron. These mineral-rich foods can help counteract the effects of alcohol, prescription drugs, hormone disruptions, high triglyceride levels, low potassium, obesity and viral infections.