Foods that are directly anti-cancer


Some foods act directly on the cancer cells—blocking their growth, preventing angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels to feed the growing tumour), promoting them to self-destruct, blocking androgen/oestrogen receptors, or even modifying cellular detoxification processes. Many spices, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits fall into this category of foods directly negating the cancer cells.

Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the bark of an evergreen tree belonging to the Lauraceae family. Major constituents in cinnamon include cinnamaldehyde, eugenol, and terpinene. Half a teaspoon of cinnamon powder eaten daily significantly reduces the risk of cancer. It is a natural food preservative and a source of iron and calcium. It reduces tumour growth and prevents new blood vessel formation. The ability of cinnamon extracts to suppress the in-vitro growth of H. pylori, a recognized risk factor for gastric cancer, gastric mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue lymphoma, and pancreatic cancer, has stirred considerable interest in the potential use of this spice.

Cloves are flower buds of the Eugenia caryophyllata tree. Several bioactive components are found in cloves, including tannins, terpenoids, eugenol, and acetyleugenol. Though native to Indonesia, cloves are used in cuisines throughout the world. Studies conducted in mice suggest its effectiveness, especially in modifying cellular detoxification processes.

Cayenne peppers and red/green chillies contain capsaicin which is known to destroy prostate cancer in mice.

Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of the saffron crocus, a plant native to Southwest Asia. Saffron contains more than 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds. A carotenoid called crocetin is responsible for its rich golden-yellow colour and is the primary cancer-fighting substance.

Pulses are a staple food in India. Lentils, chickpeas, beans and soya are a great source of fibre and proteins. In fact, they are the main sources of proteins for vegetarians. Unlike animal protein, they do not contain saturated fats, but they do have fibre. Pulses contain phytochemicals.

When consumed in adequate quantities, phytochemicals reduce the risk of cancer. Their protective effect is seen in most types of cancers, predominantly due to their anti-inflammatory effects. Epidemiological data supports this link, but more clinical studies are required. The anti-cancer effect is attributed to its various components like inositol and pentakisphosphate which block tumour growth and enhance the effects of other treatment. According to one study, eating beans three times a week reduces the risk of colon polyps (pre-cancerous lesions) by one-third. Both fibre and antioxidants in beans are responsible for the anti-cancer effect.

For soya and soya supplements, opinions diverge with respect to breast cancer—from being helpful, to having no effect, to being downright harmful. Soya foods have isoflavones which are plant-based, weak oestrogen-like compounds. Breast cancer is an oestrogen-driven tumour. Oestrogen promotes the development, growth and spread of the disease. Therefore, opinions differ on the use of soya products.

Phytoestrogens are plant-based compounds that can activate oestrogen receptors in the body. They are endocrine-disruptive (they interfere in endocrine functions). Therefore, they can either reduce oestrogen activity by blocking the individual’s more potent oestrogens from binding to the receptor or lead to increased oestrogen activity by activating the receptors. Oestrogens are a family of hormones— some are weak, like oestrone, while others are strong, like oestradiol. Plant oestrogens, on the other hand, are far weaker than the oestrogens naturally occurring in women, but they can still block the receptors effectively, preventing oestradiol from getting attached. Phytoestrogens are much weaker than the oestrogens present in our body. They block the oestrogen receptors on the cancer cell and slow the growth of hormone-driven cancers.

Proponents of soya products support this view. The jury is still out on the role of soya products in breast cancer. But some studies suggest the use of soya products as a natural alternative to oestrogenic drugs to relieve symptoms of menopause. However this use is controversial as the risk outweighs the benefits. If soya products are consumed throughout one’s life, they possibly yield greater benefits than when one’s intake starts at menopause. It is also suggested that there may be a difference in the impact of these isoflavones in different racial groups.

Nuts and seeds are a great source of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and fibre. Opinions differ on the effectiveness of each nut, therefore the best strategy is eating a combination daily. Almonds, walnuts and pecans lower cholesterol and help in fighting cancer. Cashews are rich in tryptophan which works as an anti-depressant. Flax seeds are a good source of omega-3, even better than fish oil. Apricot seeds are bitter, but contain B17, which may have strong anti-cancer properties.

Fruits and vegetables, specifically cruciferous vegetables or members of the cabbage family including cauliflowers, cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard greens (haak), bok choy, radishes, and turnips have a promising role in prostate and colon cancer. Their modes of action are multiple: they help protect cells from DNA damage, deactivate carcinogens, have anti-viral and anti-bacterial effects, and prevent angiogenesis. These vegetables contain glucosinolates which are broken down into a number of chemicals that have anti-cancer properties. Some of these are anti-androgens, which prevent proliferation of prostate cancer cells, their consumption being associated with lower cancer rates. Others affect oestrogen metabolism and promote cell death in breast, uterus and colon cancers.

Animal experiments on mice grafted with human prostate carcinoma have shown tumours shrinking to half their size within one month in animals fed these vegetables. Similarly, mice genetically engineered to develop inherent colon polyps as expected when fed sulforaphane—an antioxidant released while chewing cruciferous vegetables. The protective sulforaphane is released when the vegetables are cut and chewed. Stir fried or raw in salads is the most effective way to eat them. Broccoli is the most abundant in antioxidants—it boosts the body’s cancer protective enzymes, and flushes out cancer-causing chemicals.

Excerpted with permission from Speaking Tiger.


By Dr Arati Bhatia

Published by Speaking Tiger

Price: Rs350; Pages: 224