My journey of discovering the top cancer fighting foods
Around 2012, I was a regular at a bootcamp-style fitness class that set grueling two-minute circuit routines to pop music (two minutes has never felt so long). The instructor really had a way with words. He used to quip, “If Britney Spears made it through 2007, you can make it through this workout.” He also asserted that “abs are made in the kitchen, not at the gym.” At the time, I ate out a lot and went to happy hours way too often, but still stubbornly believed I could exercise my way to a lean body regardless of what I ate or drank, even though the instructor had six-pack abs and I most definitely did not.
Fast forward to 2016. Getting diagnosed with cancer made me feel completely powerless. I felt healthy. I’d cut way back on eating and drinking out. I was in pretty good shape. I’d “graduated” therapy and by all accounts, made big strides toward getting my life together following my escape from a stressful and toxic marriage. Nothing hurt and I didn’t feel sick, and yet I was supposed to come to terms with the fact that I had a serious and potentially fatal disease? At a time when everything seemed to be going so well, it was bizarre and surreal to acknowledge my mortality.
When I got the call with the bad news, the first thing I did was get to work making appointments to get the cancer treatment process started. The second thing I did was start reading about breast cancer. I consumed stacks and stacks of cancer books. I read cancer books at the gym, before bed, any time I could. It may have bordered on obsessive. But educating myself—having at least a basic understanding of the mechanisms of cancer, as well as the types of treatments and the psychology of having a major illness—helped me feel like I was taking back a little bit of my power.
The book that really changed my perspective was Anticancer: A New Way of Life. The author, a physician named David Servan-Schreiber, was able to beat brain cancer with the help of a diet and lifestyle overhaul—avoiding BPA, switching to organic, grass-fed meats and dairy, consuming more and varied organic vegetables and fruits, and so on. He brought up studies where certain vegetable compounds shrunk or even killed tumors in mice in a lab setting. Caveat:we’re not mice, and this isn’t a lab, so you can’t know for sure that eating more plants is going to make a damn difference in your battle against cancer. But he made a valid point: what do you have to lose?
To diversify my diet, I challenged myself to eat 10 or more different fruits and veggies each day. Ten seemed like a huge number to me, but I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t as hard as I’d anticipated, and now that I’ve had some practice, I can sometimes even approach 20. Packing so many veggies into my diet makes me feel super virtuous and helps me feel like I’m doing everything in my power to help my body fight off cancer. And as a bonus, I’m leaner and stronger than ever before—those abs are even starting to show.
What are some of the best cancer fighting foods?
The EGCG in green tea inhibits angiogenesis, which is the process of forming new blood vessels. There are some circumstances where angiogenesis is important, like in wound healing. However, cancer tumors also recruit new blood vessels to form, which allows the tumors to grow and eventually metastasize. According to a study referenced in Servan-Schreiber’s book, two or three cups of green tea per day is enough to have a positive cancer-fighting effect. I prefer Japanese matcha green tea, because it’s made from the entire ground tea leaf, and so contains more antioxidants than regular green tea. You can also bake with matcha power or add it to smoothies; for these purposes, I recommend saving some money and getting culinary-grade matcha power instead of ceremonial-grade.
All cruciferous vegetables are a great source of compounds called glucosinates, which are associated with a lower risk of cancer. Some studies have shown compounds in these veggies to have a specific impact on the estrogen receptors in breast cancer cells. That is enough evidence for me to eat more of these top cancer fighting foods:
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
Mushrooms are basically magic, but not in the way you think. The conjugated lineolic acid (CLA) in mushrooms is a natural aromatase inhibitor, which means it binds to the enzyme aromatase and prevents it from producing estrogen. Even the common white button and portobello mushrooms are a significant source of CLA! This means they’re likely a great natural supplement to help keep ER+ breast cancer at bay.
In addition to their CLA benefit, mushrooms are great for our immune system. The World’s Healthiest Foods states that mushrooms have a strong positive impact on the health and number of our white blood cells, and that “the list of immune-impacting phytonutrients in crimini mushroom is both unusual and lengthy.” So let’s put mushrooms near the top of our cancer fighting food list!
- White mushrooms
- Turmeric: this traditional Ayurvedic medicine from India contains curcumin, which has strong anti-inflammatory properties and causes cancer cells to die (“apoptosis”). HOWEVER, turmeric cannot be absorbed by the intestine unless it’s mixed with black pepper and/or ginger.
Eat a small amount of dark chocolate on its own, or dip strawberries in it for a delicious double dose of foods that fight cancer cells. Bonus: dark chocolate dipped strawberries make a great gift for the cancer patient in your life.
Berries, cherries, and stone fruit
- Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cranberries, strawberries: the antioxidative properties of berries are well known. They also contain ellagic acid, which slows tumor growth significantly.
- Cherries: these contain glucaric acid, which helps our bodies eliminiate xenoestrogens
- Plums, peaches, and nectarines also contain a ton of antioxidants, and as Servan-Schreiber points out, they’re usually a lot cheaper than berries.
At the foundation of Anticancer is the premise that modern Americans eat way too many pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats, and way too few anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, and that to decrease our risk of disease, we should make an effort to bring that ratio as close to 1:1 as possible (in reality, most Americans eat 14–25 times as many omega-6 fatty acids as they do omega-3, due in large part to our consumption of processed vegetable oils and grain-fed meat and dairy).
Foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids
- Cod liver oil
- Wild salmon
- Pastured or omega-3 enriched eggs
- Grass-fed meat and dairy
- Flaxseed oil
Foods that are high in omega-6 fatty acids (avoid)
- Grain-fed meat and dairy
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Corn oil
How to eat more foods that fight cancer
Here are some of the things I do to sneak plants into every meal! (Recipes: coming soon!!)
You’re going to think I’m weird, but bear with me—I keep bags of grated veggies in the freezer to cook into my morning oatmeal. I started with carrots and zucchini, thinking that they’d make my oats a little more like carrot cake or zucchini bread. I’ve also used riced cauliflower, shredded sweet potato, and even shredded broccoli stems, though. I really can’t even tell that the veggies are in there most of the time, though the carrots and sweet potato do add some sweetness. Top it with some mixed berries to double up on cancer reducing foods.
On carrots in oatmeal:
“It’s a great add. Nice work. Such an easy sweetener.”
-My very tolerant BF, who is gradually coming around to my vegetable obsession
Vega Protein & Greens protein powder
Real foods are preferable to supplements, no doubt, but Vega Protein & Greens makes a great insurance policy as well as a flavor booster. A scoop has 20g of vegan protein and 2 servings of greens (from alfalfa, spinach, broccoli, and kale). I add vanilla to oatmeal and smoothies pretty religiously, and mix chocolate with organic, grass fed yogurt for a treat.
Smoothies also feel like cheating, but they pass the “real food” test. In order to keep the sugar content down, I try to avoid going too heavy on the fruit. A handful of mixed baby spinach, kale, and chard helps balance out a fruit-based smoothie. I keep bags of greens in the freezer just for this purpose. The trick to avoiding finding chewy bits of salad in your smoothie is to puree the leaves first, before adding the rest of the ingredients. (The other trick is to pick up an opaque insulated cup so you don’t have to look at the weird color your smoothie just turned.) You can also blend zucchini or steamed cauliflower into your smoothie! Seriously. And don’t forget the matcha powder!
I have recently discovered cauliflower rice, and I am currently obsessed with it. Not only have I made (and loved) cauliflower rice with stir fry on top and cauliflower fried rice, but I’ve also dumped a whole riced cauliflower head in a crock pot of chipotle-sweet potato chili, and you couldn’t even tell it was there. Amazing.
My boyfriend actually turned me on to kale meatballs when he made them as a means of sneaking greens into his kids’ food. I actually think they’re superior to kale-free meatballs, and that if I ruled the world, all meatballs would contain kale. I usually use a baby spinach/chard/kale blend in mine, and shredded carrots or mushrooms work great, too.
Kale meat loaf, kale burgers
Just riffing on the kale meatballs. Kale and ground meat are magical together.
Sweet potato chili
Pro tip: make your chili super spicy, and also include chunks of sweet potato. The sweet+spicy combo is incredible.
Kale and broccoli pesto
Blend kale and broccoli into pesto. Serve on spaghetti squash. Devour.
I adapted this spinach smoothie muffin recipe from Popsugar. My version has chocolate protein, coconut oil, and less added sugar.
Don’t be put off by the greenish color of these muffins—they taste delicious and pack in a lot of fruits and veggies, in addition to some plant-based protein. Be sure to use a mini muffin tin so the centers bake evenly.
Healthy Spinach Muffin Recipe
Frozen banana nice cream
Did you know that if you put frozen bananas in the food processor, they turn into soft serve ice cream? It’s basically healthy dessert magic.
Basic banana nice cream recipe (serves 1):
- 1-2 frozen bananas
- Splash of milk (dairy or nondairy)
- That’s it – blend it and enjoy!
Some of the many things I love adding to nice cream are:
- Chocolate Vega protein+greens powder (and cacao nibs, coconut shreds, cinnamon, or cherries)
- Spinach, mint leaves, vanilla, and cacao nibs (mint chip—you’re welcome)
- Peanut or almond butter (or my favorite: Mighty Nut)
- And in case you’re overwhelmed with all the healthiness and need to take it down a notch, booze (Godiva chocolate liqueur or Irish cream work great)
Chocolate protein yogurt
Grass fed plain yogurt with a scoop of chocolate Vega protein+greens powder mixed in is so, so good. Stir in some cacao nibs for a dose of superfood and some extra crunch.
How do you boost your fruit and veg intake? Let me know in the comments!