NorthShore’s online source for timely health and wellness news, inspiring patient stories and tips to lead a healthy life.
More and more evidence suggests that the food we eat affects our risk of developing cancer. Phytochemicals, translated from Greek, are “plant chemicals” unique to plant foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains and beans. These phytochemicals have been shown to stimulate the immune system, slow the growth rate of cancer cells and prevent DNA damage that can lead to cancer. So how do we eat more phytochemicals? A diet consisting of mostly plant foods with brightly colored choices is the first step. While the vivid colors in plant foods are cancer fighters, it is important to point out that no single food or phytochemical alone can protect us from cancer and disease. Instead, a diet that offers plentiful choices from the rainbow of colors provides the best protection.
Lori Bumbaco and the rest of the Kellogg Cancer Center dietitians suggest the following examples to boost the cancer fighting properties of your diet:
Recipes sourced from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR)
Red (Carotenoids: Lycopene)
Lycopene is one of the carotenoids and responsible for giving tomatoes and watermelon their signature red color. It acts like an antioxidant to gobble up the free radicals in our bodies that create cellular damage if left unchecked. Research is ongoing, but suggests that lycopene protects us from prostate and skin cancers. The most potent form of lycopene is achieved when we cook and use a fat along with it. Tomato sauce is a great example of the most bioavailable kind of lycopene we eat. Try Moroccan Seven Vegetable Tagine or Spicy Gazpacho Soup to warm up your winter!
Enjoy a variety of these reds:Apples, cherries, cranberries, red grapes, red grapefruit, papayas, pomegranates, raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, tomatoes (low-sodium canned too), low-sodium tomato juice, beets, red peppers
Orange (Carotenoids: Beta Carotene)Beta carotene is a well-known carotenoid that gives carrots and the fall favorite, pumpkin, their orange hue. Another carotenoid is alpha carotene, which like beta carotene is converted to vitamin in our bodies. Both of these compounds are important for immune function, and also maintain cell integrity and activate cancer metabolizing enzymes. Studies show that carotenoids are associated with reduced risk for lung and some types of breast cancer. Try Overnight Oats with Pumpkin to start your day or a Ginger Carrot Salad for one easy way to start a cancer fighting meal!
Enjoy a variety of these oranges:Apricots, cantaloupes, mangos, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pumpkin, tangerines; carrots, peppers, acorn squash, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, winter squash
Yellow (Carotenoids: Lutein and Xeaxanthin)Lutein and xeaxanthin are two examples of carotenoids that are responsible for the bright yellow in fruits and vegetables. Winter squash such as spaghetti, carnival and hubbard are examples of seasonal vegetables that contain these phytochemicals. Lutein and xeaxanthin are potent antioxidants, and known to protect our eyes from damaging UVB rays. Studies have linked lutein with reduced risk for skin and renal cell cancer. Try a Ribbon Salad in the summer or Spaghetti Squash for dinner tonight!Enjoy a variety of these yellows:Banana, figs, grapefruit, honeydew melon, pears, pineapple; butternut squash, cauliflower, corn, garlic, onions, yellow peppers, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, summer squash, yellow or white potatoes
Green (Glucosinolates: Isothiocyanate and Indole)Glucosinolates are compounds in our cruciferous vegetable family. Vegetables with four petal flowers which resemble a cross or “crucifer” are known as cruciferous. Examples include broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage and turnips. Some of the dark leafy greens such as kale and arugula are known as the “headless cruciferous”. The list of vegetables in this group is relatively large; most are not aware that horseradish is a cruciferous vegetable!Glucosinolates break down into isothiocyanates and indoles when we eat the cruciferous vegetables. These compounds are anti-inflammatory, and also stimulate the enzymes that de-activate carcinogens. They also have the ability to turn on the tumor suppressor genes, slow down cancer cell growth, and stimulate apoptosis (tells cancer cells to self destruct). Eating cruciferous vegetables raw or only lightly steamed enhances their cancer fighting abilities.Studies suggest that these vegetables and their compounds are helpful in lowering the risk of lung, colorectal, stomach, breast and prostate cancers. Try Cool Cauliflower Salad, Brussels Sprouts Slaw, or Winter Veggie Pita PizzaEnjoy a variety of these “greens”:Green grapes, kiwis, pears; artichokes, asparagus, green beans, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, celery, collards, chicory, cucumbers, green beans, herbs, leafy greens (mustard, swiss chard and turnip), kale, lettuce, green peas, green peppers, romaine, snow peas, soy beans, spinach, zucchini
Blue (Polyphenols - Flavonoids: Anthocyanin and Ellagic Acid)Anthocyanins and ellagic acid are potent members of the polyphenols. They are found in most berries, especially blueberries. These compounds have been shown to decrease the free radical damage to DNA, and also decrease growth and self-destruction of cancers of the mouth, breast, colon, and prostate. They also reduce inflammation and precancerous changes in the colon and esophagus. The bacteria that reside in our digestive tract appear to use these compounds and create metabolites which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.Try Berry Yogurt Popsicles as a treat, or a Berry Parfait or Flaxseed Blueberry Pancakes for breakfast!Enjoy a variety of these “blues”:Blueberries, concord grapes
Purple (Polyphenols - Flavonoids, example is catechins and resveratrol)Cathchins and the popular resveratrol are examples of flavonoids found in purple and deep red/blue fruits and vegetables, such as plums and eggplant. These compounds act to protect our cells from oxidation, are anti-inflammatory, and also boost our immune function. Research suggests that resveratrol may inhibit growth of skin, lung, prostate, liver, colon, and breast cancer cells. Catechins have been found to be associated with a lower risk for lung cancer.Try a seasonal slow cooker recipe, Ratatouille with Millet or a Sweet and Spicy Salad for the holidays!Enjoy a variety of these “purples”:Blackberries, purple grapes, plums, prunes, raisins; cabbage, eggplant. Also try: purple asparagus, purple carrots, purple cauliflower, purple potatoes – may be found at food specialty stores and farmers markets.