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) The good new is there are certain foods — so-called cancer-fighting foods — that can help combat cancer.
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 full of cancer-fighting foods 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 while not consuming enough cancer-fighting foods.
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 outline 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 full of 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.
7. Cultured Dairy Products
Cultured dairy products are a rich source of “good bacteria” probiotics, which are microorganisms that promote a natural bacterial balance in your intestinal microflora and help increase immunity. Over 80 percent of your immune system is housed in your gut, so it’s no surprise that probiotic foodsand supplementation can stop tumor growth and help cells renew.
One of the easiest ways to consume more probiotics is in their most natural state, which includes raw milk products such as cheese, kefir and yogurt. Raw and cultured are key here, since fermentation produces probiotics but high heat processing used to pasteurize dairy can damage many of the vital nutrients, including the enzymes, proteins and probiotics. Most dairy today is loaded with hormones, antibiotics, pain killers and pesticide residue so buying organic is also important.
Aim for six ounces of cultured dairy daily (probiotic yogurt, cottage cheese, goat milk kefir or amasai). Cottage cheese, which is rich in sulfur protein and saturated fats, was found to be especially beneficial as part of the Budwig diet for cancer protocol. You can also increase your probiotic food intake without dairy by consuming cultured vegetables like kimchi, sauerkraut, coconut kefir, kombucha or natto.
Cultured dairy is also a great source of calcium. Calcium, particularly when combined with Vitamin D3 form, may reduce the incidence of cancer by 35 to 60 percent. Calcium seems to be especially beneficial for preventing cancer and rectal cancers. (16) Some studies have also found that it helps reduce breast cancer and ovarian cancer risk. Sunlight exposure and marine oils such as cod liver oil or krill oil are great sources of vitamin D that help with calcium absorption. Calcium should ideally be obtained from foods like organic dairy products (I recommend
8. Nuts and Seeds
Chia seeds and flaxseeds are two of the most nutrient-dense seeds in the world. They provide fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and a range of important minerals. Hemp seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seedsare also beneficial and full of healthy fatty acids, as are walnuts, brazil nuts and almonds. Their health benefits and are best sprouted and can be used easily in smoothies, baked goods and with yogurt. Aim for two tablespoons daily.
9. Healthy Unrefined Oils (Coconut, Flax, Cod Liver and Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
Did you know that your brain and nervous system control the function of your entire body and that about 60 percent of your nervous system is made up of fatty acids? The problem is that many of the conventional processed fats and oils widely consumed today are hydrogenated oils that are capable of destroying the membranes of our cells, leading to diseased cells and toxicity.
Refined and rancid fats create problems throughout your entire body, leading to lower immune function, cell congestion and inflammation that kicks off disease. Replace refined vegetable oils, hydrogenated oils and trans fats with quality oils, including flax oil, extra virgin olive oil, cod oil and coconut oil. These nourish your gut and promote better immune function, help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, plus flaxseed and cod liver oil contain essential omega-3 fatty acids that can help energize your cells. Olive oil contains phytonutrients that seem to reduce inflammation in the body. It may reduce the risk of breast and colorectal cancers.
Nutritious mushrooms vary in terms of their benefits, taste and appearance since hundreds of mushroom species are in existence today, but all are known to be immune-enhancers and many have been used to fight cancer for centuries.(17) Reishi, cordyceps and maitake in particular can improve immune function, fight tumor growth and help with cell regeneration. Look for them in capsule or tincture form, and cook with them whole whenever possible too.
11. Traditional Teas
Metastasis is the most deadly aspect of cancer and results from several connected processes including cell proliferation, angiogenesis, cell adhesion, migration and invasion into the surrounding tissue. Metastasis is the principal cause of death among cancer patients, so it’s one of the most important issues in cancer research today. Several clinical and epidemiological studies have reported that the consumption of green tea can help decrease cancer risk. Green tea contains major polyphenolic compounds, including epigallocatechin-3-gallate, which has been shown to inhibit tumor invasion and angiogenesis, which are essential for tumor growth and metastasis. (18)
Teas derived from the leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis are commonly consumed as beverages around the world, including green, black or oolong tea. While all traditional teas seem to be beneficial, the most significant effects on human health have been attributed to green tea, such as matcha green tea. It contains the highest percetange of polyphenolic compounds, catechin, gallocatechin and EGCG.
The antioxidant EGCG appears to be the most potent of all the catechins, and its anticancer effects have activity about 25–100 times more effective than that of vitamins C and E! EGCG has been reported to be linked to the modulation of multiple signaling pathways, finally resulting in the downregulation of expression of proteins involved in the invasiveness of cancer cells.
12. Wild-Caught Fish
According to a 2004 study conducted by researchers at the Richerche Institute of Pharmacology, higher fish consumption is another favorable diet indicator of better immune function. (19) The study, which investigated the cancer-fighting effects of the Mediterranean diet, found that people who reported eating less fish and more frequent red meat showed several common neoplasms in their blood that suggested higher susceptibility.
Wild and especially small fish, including salmon, mackerel and sardines are anti-inflammatory omega-3 foods that are correlated with better brain, hormonal and nervous system health. Omega-3 fatty acids exert anti-inflammatory effects, and therefore recent studies have connected them to cancer prevention and natural enhancement of antitumour therapies. (20) Evidence suggests a role for omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in cancer prevention and reducing symptoms of treatments like chemotherapy. Omega-3s have been shown to preserve muscle mass and function in chemotherapy cancer patients and to contribute to a reduced inflammatory response resulting from the treatment’s toxicity.
Cancer-Fighting Foods: Other Ways to Increase Effectiveness of An Anti-Cancer Diet
1. Lower Your Toxin Load
An anti-cancer diet consists of:
- Lowering your toxin intake.
- Supporting the body’s cleansing and detoxifying processes.
- Eating healthy and nutrient-rich foods to support all of your body’s functions.
First and foremost, you can take these steps to reduce or eliminate the following products and substances from your life in order to halt toxin accumulation and reduce free radical, cellular damage:
- Electromagnetic Waves: Cell phones, TV’s, computer screens, microwaves—even the wiring in our homes and basic appliances emit constant electromagnetic frequencies or EMF’s that disturb the bioelectrical functioning of our bodies. Cell phone use has been linked to a host of cancer-promoting processes. Limit your exposure by getting rid of your microwave, as it is your largest source for EMF’s, and making use of headphones with your cell phone.
- Commercial Health and Beauty Products: The things we put in our mouths and use on our skin or hair, such as commercial shampoos, makeup and cleansing products, are often loaded with potential carcinogens. Visit the Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep databaseto look-up your favorite products and determine if you should switch to another brand.
- Household Cleaners: Indoor environments are often concentrated sources of pollution. Lower your toxin load by switching to natural cleaners or making your own instead of using products that are filled with chemicals.
- Unnecessary Medications: All medications pass through and burden the liver. High use of acetaminophen is rapidly overtaking alcohol as the number one cause of liver disease. Work with your physician to lessen the amount of medications you are taking.
- Plastics: Compounds in plastic containers, plastic wraps, the lining of metal cans, and paperboard containers can all leach compounds that disrupt the neuroendocrine system. This is especially true when plastic is heated, which is why it’s smart not to microwave plastic containers, store very hot food in plastic, or leave plastic water bottles anywhere where they will become very hot (such as in your car).
You may also want to periodically try fasting to help with detoxification. Even if you eat healthy foods regularly, environmental toxins bombard you at all turns. The organs that are responsible for detoxification and elimination–the skin, respiratory system, kidney, liver and digestive tract–often get overburdened and re-circulate toxins in the bloodstream. Practicing a cleanse or detox every few months can help these organs “catch up” and dispose of toxins stored in cells and tissue. Colon and liver cleanses can be accomplished with a variety of herbs, green drinks and easily digested whole foods such as juiced vegetables or those that are lightly steamed.
2. Drink Clean Water
Our drinking (tap) water can contain hundreds of unregulated substances, from pesticides and heavy metals to hormones and other pollutants. Bottled water is even less regulated, which means it’s not necessarily a good alternative. Your best bet is buying a filter that can be used as home to remove chlorine, fluoride and other pollutants from the water you drink and cook with.
3. Cook Foods at Lower Temperatures and Avoid Burnt Food
- Don’t fry your foods! Greatly reduce the amount of fast food, french fries, chips, cakes, cereals and crackers you eat.
- It’s virtually impossible to completely eliminate acrylamide that can accumulate on fried foods. But eating a balanced diet mostly free of processed foods and avoiding a high-starch diet can greatly reduce acrylamide levels.
- Frying, baking, broiling or roasting are more likely to create acrylamide. On the other hand, boiling and steaming appear less likely to do so. Longer cooking times and cooking at higher temperatures can increase the amount of acrylamide in foods further.
- Don’t store potatoes in the refrigerator. That can cause acrylamide levels to surge. If you’re planning on cooking potatoes at higher temperatures, soak the cut-up spuds first. Soaking in water for 2 hours before high-temp cooking can reduce acrylamide levels by nearly 50 percent. Even a simple 30-second rinse can slash acrylamide levels by 20-plus percent. (21)
I don’t eat much bread, but when I do eat an occasional sandwich or toast, I make sure it’s made with sprouted bread, such as Ezekiel bread. Additionally, I definitely avoid over-toasting or burning the bread! The Food Standards Agency says as a general rule of thumb, aim for a golden yellow color or lighter when toasting, roasting, frying or baking.
4. Avoid Processed Grains and Added Sugar
Our bodies make best use of food in its natural state, which is why added sugar or processed/refined grains are difficult to break down and can cause gut trouble. The more processed and altered that a food is, the more unnatural and harmful it becomes. Refined sugar, wheat flour, boxed pastas, frozen dinners, powdered cheese and heat-treated vegetable oils—these processed foods are at the heart of a whole host of diseases and disorders.
Wheat, soy and corn products are highly subsidized by the US government, making them very cheap and widely available for production of highly processed and refined products. Food allergies associated with these foods are subsequently on the rise and can contribute to leaky gut syndrome and improper nutrient absorption. These foods are also often loaded with pesticides, herbicides, GMOs and heavy metals. More and more, the seeds from which they are grown are genetically engineered. The solution? Buy organic, sprouted whole grains and avoid processed soy products.
- Check ingredient labels to be sure you’re not consuming high amounts of added sugar/sweeteners. Brown rice syrup found in some snack bars and non-dairy beverages may contain high arsenic levels.
- Be wary of foods that might seem healthy but are really not, such as low-fat or fat-free foods, dairy-free and gluten-free foods, rice milk and foods containing artificial sweeteners. Many times these foods contain chemical additives in order to replace fat, wheat or dairy ingredients.
- Try working alternative grains like quinoa or buckwheat into some meals, rather than eating lots of bread, instant rice, pasta, cereal, etc.
- Rinse, soak and sprout your grains. Rinse your rice and cook it like pasta to reduce the amount of antinutrients it will provide. According to a Cornell University researcher, rinsing brown rice until the water is clear (usually 5 to 6 washings), and then cooking in a ration of 1 cup of rice to 6 cups of water, can remove 40 to 55 percent of inorganic arsenic in rice. (22, 23) And researchers from the UK found that cooking rice in a coffee pot reduced arsenic by up to 85 percent. (24)
Consumer Reports testing found that basmati rice grown in California contained the lowest levels of arsenic; all types of rice, except sushi and quick-cooking rice, from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas contained the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in a Consumer Reports testing. (25)
5. Use Essential Oils
Frankincense essential oil (Boswellia serrata) has been clinically shown to be a vital treatment for various forms of cancer, including breast, brain, colon and prostate cancers. Frankincense has the ability to help regulate cellular epigenetic function, which positively influences genes to promote healing. Rub frankincense essential oil on your body (neck area) three times daily and take three drops internally in eight ounces of water three times daily as part of a natural prevention plan. Other helpful anti-inflammatory essential oils include clove, rose, tea tree and oregano oils.
6. Get Enough Sunshine and Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that acts similarly to a hormone in our bodies. The best way to naturally obtain enough is through direct exposure to the sun, although eating certain vitamin D-rich foods like salmon and eggs can help, as can taking a high-quality supplement.
Clinical research shows that vitamin D can help prevent cancer best when you acquire about 50–70 nanograms per milliliter daily. (26) Cover your bases of vitamin D3 through getting 20 minutes of sun exposure every day, ideally between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. with 40 percent of your entire body exposed to the sun. You can also take an oral supplement containing around 5,000 to 10,000 IUs of D3 every day; I recommend an effective combination formula of astaxanthin and omega-3 fish oils with vitamin D3 taken together.
7. Boost Detoxification with Supplements and Herbs
Some experts recommend drinking alkaline water which you can create by adding lemon or lime juice and/or a few drops of hydrogen peroxide.To help with detoxification you may also want to increase your intake of raw foods and green juices. Although fiber is an important part of digestion, elimination, detoxification and a source of probiotic support—too much fiber can stress a weakened or hyper-reactive immune system. Juicing, steaming and lightly cooking raw foods, using green powders and cutting back on or eliminating whole grains can ease digestion and make many nutrients more readily available.
Eating a healthy diet is number one when it comes to cancer prevention. But there are also certain herbs and supplements that have been shown to help lower inflammation, boost the immune system, and therefore help to decrease cancer risk. These include:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (Omega-3 fatty acid): Omega-3 fatty acids are getting so much attention because the Western diet is so unbalanced with an overabundance of omega-6’s. Omega-3’s have a host of health benefits and research is still underway to validate their benefits in combating cancer.
- Chorella, Blue-green algae and Spirulina: These single-celled animals are a source of Vitamin B12 and bind with heavy metals, helping to eliminate them from the body.
- CLA: Conjugated linoleic acid boosts the immune system and may reduce the risk of developing colon, rectal and breast cancers. (27)
- Coriolus Mushrooms: These disease fighting mushrooms have specific polysaccharides that boost the immune system, reduce tumor growth and combat cancer. (28)
- Folate/Vitamin B9: Folate (vitamin B9) is crucial to DNA production and has been found to be effective against breast, colorectal and pancreatic cancers.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate our sleep and waking cycles. This hormone’s levels are closely linked to immune system function. Getting at least 8 hours of sleep and reducing stress will boost your melatonin levels.
Cancer-Fighting Foods Recipes
The No. 1 thing to do immediately to protect yourself from cancer is to improve your diet. Focus on filling your plate with nutrient-dense vegetables first, and then add in all of the other components that make up a healthy diet. Here’s some recipes to get you started:
- Anti-Inflammatory Juice Recipe
- Pumpkin Blueberry Pancakes Recipe
- Kale Chips Recipe
- Gluten-Free Cauliflower Mac and Cheese Recipe
- Teriyaki Baked Salmon Recipe
Precautions Regarding An Anti-Cancer Diet and Cancer-Fighting Foods
The quality of your diet is undoubtably linked to your overall health and ability to prevent cancer. However other factors are also important for cancer-prevention, such as exercising, avoiding medication and toxin exposure, not smoking or consuming too much alcohol, sleeping well and controlling stress. A variety of foods can be included in an anti-cancer diet, and your diet doesn’t need to be “perfect” to be healthy. Start by making one or two changes at a time to your diet, removing foods that you consume a lot of but that are known to increase cancer risk.
Final Thoughts on Cancer-Fighting Foods
- Cancer-causing foods include those that contain pesticides, additives, added sugar or artificial sweeteners, processed meats, burnt foods, fried foods and other chemicals. Examples of cancer-causing foods and ingredients are french fries, hot dogs, deli meats, sausage, ice cream, refined rice and other gains, high fructose corn syrup, processed vegetable oils, and trans-fats.
- To follow an anti-cancer diet lower your toxin intake, support the body’s cleansing and detoxifying processes, get enough vitamin D, upgrade your water and eat unprocessed nutrient-rich foods — in addition to cancer-fighting foods.
- Some of the top cancer-fighting foods include cruciferous veggies, leafy greens, berries, orange and yellow veggies, herbs and spices, cultured dairy products, nuts, seeds and healthy fats like coconut or olive oil.
Eat well and stay alive.