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Cancer preventing diets

by Felicia Di Palma March 15, 2011
Cancer preventing diets

Graphic by Amanda Durepos

Cancer has become a word most of us fear, and with good reason, considering an estimated 74, 000 people having died from cancer in 2008 according the Canadian Cancer Society.

According to a study from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC) published in the European Journal of Cancer, only five to 10 per cent of all cancer cases are due to genetic defects. The remaining cases they report are due to lifestyle factors including smoking, diet, alcohol, physical inactivity, obesity and sun exposure as well as  infections and environmental pollutants.

While there is not one miracle food that can be consumed to lower the risk of cancer, being aware of what ingredients go into your meals and making certain lifestyle changes can reduce your chances of becoming a cancer patient.


Lifestyle changes to make before changing your diet

1. It is time to cut out the smoking because it keeps your immune system from reaching its maximum strength, which can bring on cancer.

2. Next is cutting the excessive tanning.

3. Finally, it is important to limit the amount of alcohol your body consumes.


Understanding the diet

First things first; you need to be introduced to some Super-Food lingo: antioxidants, beta-carotene, fibre, protein, vitamins galore. A diet comprised of all these cancer fighters, along with the lifestyle changes mentioned above, will be the healthiest and most effective way to go about preventing cancer.

This kind of diet will also boost your immune system. “The body needs to have all the necessary elements like vitamins and minerals to be able to produce antibodies and other defence mechanisms used by the human body,” said dietitian Marta Grzegorczyk, who founded Info Nutrition, an in-home nutrition service. “Without these elements the body cannot function properly. Antibodies that protect the body’s cells against free radicals have a positive effect on the immune system.”


Fats and preservatives

Limiting fat intake is important, said Grzegorczyk, especially saturated and trans fats, as they are linked with numerous health problems. “It is also important to encourage the consumption of unprocessed foods, as some of the chemicals used as food additives can be harmful to the body and could trigger cancer cells production.”

Our bodies do need fats though, but, preferably the healthy fats (yes, they do exist). Walnuts, almonds, olive oil and avocados are full of monounsaturated fats. Instead of reaching for a bag of chips, go for a hand full of walnuts or pistachios. For those allergic to nuts,  pumpkin seeds, olives and especially fish like salmon are suggested replacements.

The Canadian Cancer Society also lists food additives like preservatives as dangerous to your health. On their website they write: “When meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives, cancer-causing substances can be formed. These substances can damage cells in the body and lead to the development of colorectal cancer. Research shows that eating processed meat increases the risk of cancer. Save processed meat for special occasions, such as ham for a holiday dinner.”


Antioxidants and anti-inflammatory

COX-2 is an enzyme that could lead to inflammation and pain. It also could cause tumour cells to grow. By counteracting COX-2, you could prevent cancer cells from growing.

Howard Epstein, the director of Technology and Business Development at Cosmetic Actives and Bio Active in New Jersey who has done research on food and cancer prevention, said that “quercetin found in red onions and various fruits and vegetables suppress COX-2 enzyme.”

Quercetin is a flavonoid, a plant chemical that can act like an antihistamine and anti-inflammatory. It is also an antioxidant, which are vitally important, said Grzegorczyk.

“Antioxidants help to prevent oxidation of molecules caused by free radicals, this means that they help to slow down or prevent damage done to cells in our body. Oxidative damage done to cells contributes to health problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”

Antioxidants can be found in something as tiny as a blueberry yet could protect you from cancer. Dark chocolate contains antioxidants said to prevent skin cancer. Antioxidants can also be found in spices, one of the most powerful is cinnamon. Cinnamon functions as an anti-inflammatory as well as an antioxidant and has the ability to prevent blood clotting, to prevent bacteria, like fungi, from spreading, to regulate blood sugar levels and to lower blood pressure.

Now that we know cinnamon is great for the body, let’s talk about the Batman to its Robin, apples.  Apple peels, especially the darker in color apple peels like the red delicious apple, have “cancer preventers” in them like antioxidants, vitamin A and C and minerals like calcium, potassium, and iron. According to a  2007 study at Cornell University that was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, apples peels can not only destroy cancer cells, but can also prevent them from spreading.

Rui Hai Liu, an associate professor of food and science at Cornell University and senior author of the study, told Science Daily, “We found that several compounds (phytochemicals, more importantly flavonoids and phenolic acids) have potent antiproliferative activities against human liver, colon and breast cancer cells and may be partially responsible for the anti-cancer activities of whole apples.”



Vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E and beta-carotene are also important elements of a cancer diet. While many of us would search for these in supplements, Grzegorczyk said that is not always the right choice to make. Rather she said it is better to eat whole foods that contain all the vitamins and nutrients. The reason is that dietary supplements often only provide one component, whereas in food you get a multitude of different components.

“Supplements can also be deceiving because they give the consumer a false impression of healthy eating. The consumer presumes that because they are taking vitamins, they do not have to eat as many healthy foods,” added Grzegorczyk. “If you rely on nutrition alone to make sure you have all your essential dietary components, you are much more prone to make healthy food choices and have a balanced diet.”

Beta-carotene is an organic compound best known for giving fruits and vegetables their red, orange and yellow pigments. It can provide approximately 50 per cent of the vitamin A needed in a daily diet and is said to be effective in preventing cancers, especially breast cancer and ovarian cancer. It is found in carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, mango, apricots and butternut squash. Other vitamin A foods include liver, spinach, kale, cilantro and thyme.

Vitamin C foods include oranges, as well as papaya, strawberries, lemons, cauliflower, broccoli and more. Their cancer-preventing qualities were discovered by a team of Johns Hopkins University scientists who found that the antioxidants may destabilize a tumour’s ability to grow under oxygen-starved conditions, an effect of vitamin C. While good for your health, it should not be taken in excess as a means of cancer prevention.


Quick Tips

Shopping: The rule of thumb when choosing your fruits and vegetables is to go for those that are rich in colour. These tend to have the most nutrients and a higher ability to fight cancer. Examples include broccoli compared to cauliflower. While cauliflower contains vitamins C and K along with potassium, broccoli could help reduce cholesterol, contains beta-carotene and has the highest amount of vitamins compared to any other vegetable.

Recipe: Grzegorczyk provided a great snack recipe that contains antioxidants, vitamins, proteins, healthy fat and vitamin E:

– 1/2 cup of 0% fat yogurt

– ½ cup of mixed berries

– 1 tsp of honey


Healthy fats: Walnuts, almonds, olive oil, avocados, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, olives and salmon.

Antioxidants/anti-inflammatory: Foods rich in quercetin include black and green teas, capers, apples, red onions, red grapes, citrus fruit, tomatoes, broccoli and other leafy green vegetables, and a number of berries, including raspberries, cranberries and blueberries. Dark chocolate and cinnamon are another good source of antioxidants.

Vitamins: Vitamin A is found in carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, mangoes, apricots and butternut squash, liver, spinach, kale, cilantro and thyme. Vitamin C foods include oranges, papaya, strawberries, lemons, cauliflower and broccoli.


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