10 Cancer-Fighting Foods You Should Be Eating

By Guest Writer - March 07, 2024

Foods that fight cancer include fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fish and fermented foods. Found abundantly in the Mediterranean diet, these foods contain several protective compounds that work together to lower cancer risk. Some help regulate hormones, such as estrogen. Others slow cancer cell growth or block inflammation. Many lower the risk of damage to healthy cells caused by antioxidants, but most people remain unaware of these benefits.      

This lack of awareness has resulted in a very SAD diet for most Americans. The standard American diet (SAD), a term used to describe the nutrient content of the food Americans typically eat, has long been believed to contribute to the health challenges experienced in the United States, including cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, only 8% of the standard American diet consists of protective foods. Many people believe that pesticides and pollution are the major factors in cancer risk, when in fact, modifiable lifestyle factors, such as diet, are the largest drivers of cancer risk.

Although no single food can stop cancer, consistently including a variety of cancer-fighting foods as part of a healthy diet is key to reducing risk. Choose these foods in their whole form, as whole foods contain more nutrients than processed. Think fresh strawberries instead of strawberry jelly.

Our list of top 10 cancer-fighting foods includes foods that comprise the popular Mediterranean diet, long known to improve health outcomes as a whole food, plant-forward healthy eating pattern. Because the Mediterranean diet is flexible, you can tailor it to your needs and get various nutrients that work together to help your body. And remember, it's all about eating a variety because the combination of these foods are more powerful than any one food alone. 

1. Berries
Berries are among the healthiest foods you can eat. Their vitamins, fiber and antioxidants, such as anthocyanins, ellagic acid and resveratrol, can ward off cancer in our digestive tract. The magic likely resides in their blue, purple and red pigments. Delicious alone or as a snack or dessert. Try them on top of cottage cheese on toast.   

 

2. Cruciferous Vegetables
These foods include broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. The name comes from the Latin “cruciferae,” meaning "cross-bearing" because the four petals on the leaves resemble a cross. While diverse in color and shape, they share several nutritional benefits and are the only foods containing the cancer-fighting compound indole-3-carbinol. Frequently eating these foods is associated with a lower risk of many cancers. For a melt-in-your-mouth side, roast and toss with olive oil or small amounts of dried fruit or 100% maple syrup.

3. Fish
Fish contains high levels of nutrients and protein, particularly oily fish, such as salmon, tuna and anchovies. One of the highest food sources of omega-3 fatty acids, fish combats inflammation and protects against breast and colorectal cancer. Need help with how to cook it? Marinate or season to add flavor and bake, broil, steam or sear on the stovetop. Eat hot or add avocado and greens for a cold salad.     

4. Nuts
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, all nuts, especially walnuts, have cancer-fighting properties. A great source of fiber and healthy fats, nuts can be eaten as a snack, sprinkled on cereal or added to a salad. Try toasting to bring out even more flavor in the nut.

5. Legumes
The American Cancer Society recommends legumes and beans as one of the most important food groups for prevention. Rich in vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber, they are among the most inexpensive cancer-fighting foods. Plant chemicals known as flavonoids in the outer bean layer are strong antioxidants. Cheap, healthy, versatile and delicious, legumes are a food staple worldwide, available dry and canned. Enjoy as dips and spreads (hummus), with whole grains (brown rice) or used to bulk up soups, stews and salads.

6. Dark chocolate 
Eating dark chocolate with high cocoa content can deliver fiber, antioxidants and minerals that may lower the risk of certain cancers. Chocolate comes from the cacao tree's plant seed, the cocoa bean, and is a good source of polyphenols and flavanols, which are rocket fuel for healthy gut bacteria. Of course, dark chocolate is still candy and is best consumed in moderation. Have a square or two after dinner and try to savor the complexity of flavors it provides.  

7. Whole grains
Whole grains such as rolled oats, brown rice and 100% whole wheat bread contain protective antioxidants as Vitamin E, lignans, phytic acid and fiber. Eating whole grains reduces the risk of at least 18 types of cancer, and each 10-gram increase in dietary fiber from this food group is linked with a 7% reduction in colorectal cancer risk. As fiber is only found in plant foods, choose breads and cereals containing at least 3 grams per serving.

8. Leafy greens
Carotenoids found in leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale act as antioxidants to boost the body’s own defenses to fight breast, bladder and lung cancer. Most Americans shy away from dark, leafy greens because they are bitter. To balance the bitterness, massage your greens to break up the fibers. Wonderful for salads, kale won't wilt for days, making it great for packing ahead. You can also sauté your greens, add them to soups and casseroles or puree into a pesto for pasta.

9. Fermented foods
Cultured or fermented foods provide probiotics, healthy bacteria that improve immune function and protect against cancer. These good bacteria can bind and destroy potential carcinogens, which may be especially effective in preventing colorectal cancer. Don't like yogurt? Try something new, such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi or tempeh.  

10. Garlic 
Classified as a vegetable, cultures have long used garlic both for cooking and medicine. A root vegetable, garlic contains allicin, a protective sulfur compound that inhibits cancer progression. Eating garlic frequently lowers the risk of colorectal cancer but is also being studied for its role in reducing other cancers. When cooking with garlic, wait 15 minutes after you crush or chop garlic before heating to release the active ingredients. Use as a flavoring to any savory dish.

Ready to add more cancer-fighting foods to your diet?
Food is a personal choice, but the first step to making healthier choices consistently over time is keeping the menu simple. You don't need a long list of ingredients to make a healthy, delicious meal full of cancer-fighting nutrients. Planning can go a long way to make a plant-forward meal easy to prepare, affordable and unapologetically delicious. Try this menu sample for one day - and let us help you fight cancer.  

Breakfast: Homemade yogurt parfait with strawberries, nuts and low-fat plain yogurt    
Lunch:  Kale, tomato, avocado and chickpea salad with vinaigrette  
Dinner: Halibut over brown rice with roasted vegetables and garlic. Finish the meal on the sweet side with blueberries topped with dark chocolate and pecans.

This article was written by Moffitt registered dietitian Diane Riccardi. 

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