Research on the link between foods and cancer tends to focus on two components: phytochemicals and antioxidants. Phytochemicals are plant-based substances that are believed to have positive effects on human health. Antioxidants are molecules that prevent free radicals (oxidizing molecules) from damaging cells. The goal of current research is to determine precisely how and why these substances—found primarily in fruits and vegetables—can prevent or stop the development of malignant cells. When animals are given vegetables and fruits before being exposed to carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), they are less likely to develop cancer. Although additional experimental data needs to be collected in humans, there is evidence that consumption of fruits and vegetables may play an important role in preventing cancer.
Phytochemicals are chemicals that occur naturally in plants. Several hundred types of phytochemicals have been identified, but many more likely remain to be identified. Some examples include indoles in cabbage or cauliflower, saponins in peas and beans, genstain in soybeans, and isoflavones in soy milk and tofu. Over the past 20 years, nutrition scientists have consistently found that individuals who eat greater amounts of vegetables and fruits have lower rates of cancer. It has been only recently that the mechanisms by which phytochemicals assist the body in resisting cancer have begun to be understood. The phytochemicals present in fruits and vegetables protect the body by stunting the growth of malignant cells. It is not yet known how many phytochemicals exist and how they work, but the World Health Organization concluded that people who ate at least 400 grams of fruits and vegetables every day had a significantly lower risk of various cancers. This determination led many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, to campaign for increased produce intake, such as the U.K.’s 5 A DAY campaign. It is recommended that individuals mix and match their five servings a day of fruits and vegetables with seven or more starchy or protein-rich plant foods such as grains, peas and beans, and potatoes. Supplements containing vitamins and minerals can help an individual gain some of the benefits of these substances. However, vitamin and mineral supplements are not a total replacement for real food. This is because vitamin and mineral supplements, although very beneficial, do not supply the thousands of phytochemicals that might be present in fruits and vegetables, according to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio.
For example, eating a sweet potato with its skin, which is a great source of both beta carotene and fiber, provides at least 5,000 phytochemicals that are not present in a beta-carotene supplement. That’s an extremely important difference. Isolating a few compounds in a pill will not provide the hundreds of protective benefits that plant foods provide. The best advice is to obtain phytochemicals by eating a good variety of plant foods every day. Whether fruits and vegetables are consumed in raw or cooked form does not really matter with regard to phytochemical content. Even canned, frozen, and juiced fruits and vegetables pack a phytochemical punch. However, raw or steamed vegetables provide the best nutrient value.
The antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods fight free radicals, which are compounds in the body that attack and destroy cell membranes. The uncontrolled activity of free radicals is believed to cause many cancers. Examples of antioxidants include carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, lycopene, and vitamins C and E. The carotenoids, in particular, which give fruits and vegetables their bright yellow, orange, and red colors, are now gaining recognition for their nutritional worth.
Numerous studies have extolled the virtues of lycopene (the carotenoid that makes tomatoes red) in preventing prostate cancer. One such study at Harvard University found that men who include tomato products in their meals twice a week could reduce their risk of developing prostate cancer by one-third compared with men who do not consume tomatoes. Other lycopene-rich foods, such as watermelon, red grapefruit, and guava, are now piquing the interest of researchers. Watermelon not only yields more lycopene per serving (15 mg in 1 1/2 cups) than raw tomatoes (11 mg per 1 1/2 cups), but it’s also a rich source of vitamins A and C.
Whether antioxidants can reduce the incidence of cancer is still uncertain at this point because of the lack of sufficient studies. However, research data obtained thus far indicates that antioxidants do appear to provide health benefits. The National Cancer Institute estimates that roughly one-third of all cancer deaths may be dietrelated. Scientists have recently estimated that approximately 30% to 40% of all cancers could be averted if people ate more fruits, vegetables, and plant-based foods and minimized high-fat, high-calorie edibles that have scant nutritional value. Food can have both positive and negative effects.
In the past, researchers had linked fat consumption with the development of cancers, but they currently believe that eating fruits, vegetables, and grains may be more important in preventing the disease than not eating fat.
Many of the common foods found in grocery stores or organic markets contain cancer-fighting properties, from the antioxidants that neutralize the damage caused by free radicals to the powerful phytochemicals that scientists are just beginning to explore. There isn’t a single element in a particular food that does all the work. The best thing to do is eat a variety of foods.
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There are a number of foods that are thought tohave the ability to help stave off cancer, and some may even help inhibit cancer cell growth or reduce tumor size. These foods have been determined to be the bestcancer fighters based on the nutrients they contain.
- AVOCADOS :
Avocados are rich in glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that attacks free radicals in the body by blocking intestinal absorption of certain fats. They also supply even more potassium than bananas and are a good source of vitamin E.
Scientists believe that avocados may also be useful in treating viral hepatitis (a cause of liver cancer), as well as other sources of liver damage.
A 2007 study sponsored by Ohio State University found supportive evidence that the phytochemicals in avocados may help prevent oral cancer.
- BEANS :
Beans contain a number of phytochemicals,which have been shown to prevent or slow genetic damage to cells. While this makes beans beneficial for helping to reduce the risk of many types of cancer, specific research has suggested they are especially potent in preventing prostate cancer. As an added bonus, the high fiber content of beans has been connected with a lower risk of digestive cancers.
- BERRIES :
The two most widely studied cancer-fighting compounds in berries are ellagic acid (richest in strawberries and raspberries) and anthocyanosides (richest in blueberries).
Ellagic acid is believed to help prevent skin, bladder, lung, and breast cancers, both by acting as an antioxidant and by slowing the reproduction of cancer cells.
The anthocyanosides in blueberries are currently the most powerful antioxidants known to scientists and are beneficial in the prevention of all types of cancer.
Raspberries contain many vitamins, minerals, plant compounds, and antioxidants known as anthocyanins that may protect against cancer.
Black raspberries are rich in antioxidants and are thought to have even more cancer- preventing properties than blueberries and strawberries.
- CARROTS :
Carrots contain a plentiful amount of beta-carotene, which may help reduce a wide range of cancers including lung, mouth, throat, stomach, intestine, bladder, prostate, and breast.
Some research indicates that beta-carotene may actually cause cancer, but this study has not confirmed that eating carrots, unless in very large quantities (e.g., 2 to 3 kilos a day), can cause cancer.
In fact, a substance called falcarinol that is found in carrots has been found to reduce the risk of cancer. It has been demonstrated that isolated cancer cells grow more slowly when exposed to falcarinol. This substance is a polyacetylene.
- CHILI PEPPERS :
Chili peppers and jalapenos contain a chemical, capsaicin, which may neutralize certain cancer-causing substances called nitrosamines and may help prevent cancers such as stomach cancer.
- CRUCIFEROUS VEGETABLES :
All cruciferous vegetables (members of the Brassicaceae, or Cruciferae family), including cabbage and cauliflower, are rich in a variety of compounds that have been shown to slow cancer growth and development in a number of laboratory studies.
These vegetables contain a chemical component called indole-3-carbinol that can combat breast cancer by converting a cancer-promoting estrogen into a more protective variety.
Other larger human studies have shown that cruciferous vegetables can help to reduce the risk of lung and bladder cancers.
The antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which are present in cruciferous vegetables, may help decrease the risk of prostate and other cancers.
Broccoli, which is also a cruciferous vegetable, contains the phytochemical sulforaphane, a product of glucoraphanin, that is believed to aid in preventing some types of cancer, such as stomach, colon and rectal cancer.
Sulforaphane induces the production of certain enzymes that can deactivate free radicals and carcinogens. The enzymes have been shown to inhibit the growth of tumors in laboratory animals.
- DARK GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLES :
Leafy-green vegetables, such as romaine lettuce, mustard greens, chicory, and Swiss chard, are rich sources of antioxidants called carotenoids. These compounds scavenge dangerous free radicals from the body before they can promote cancer growth. The vegetables are also rich in folate, a vitamin shown to reduce the risk of lung and breast cancer.
- FIGS :
Figs contain a derivative of benzaldehyde. It has been reported by investigators at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Tokyo that benzaldehyde is highly effective at shrinking tumors, although further experiments need to be conducted.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that figs, which contain vitamins A and C, and calcium, magnesium and potassium, may curtail appetite and improve weight-loss efforts.
Fig juice is also a potent bacteria killer in test-tube studies.
- FLAX :
Flax contains lignans, which may have an antioxidant effect and block or suppress cancerous changes.
Flax is also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to protect against colon cancer and heart disease.
Flaxseed in the form of oil and meal contains phytoestrogens believed to reduce the risk of breast, skin, and lung cancer. Research on the potency of flaxseed as an anti-cancer food is still ongoing.
A specialized diet called the Budwig diet, which has been used by some cancer patients, uses the combination of flaxseed oil and cottage cheese. When these two foods are consumed simultaneously, it is said that they increase the levels of substances called phosphatides and lipoproteins in the blood. Dr. Johanna Budwig, the creator of the diet, claims that the diet is both preventative and curative in regard to cancer.
- GARLIC :
Garlic has immune-enhancing allium compounds (diallyl sulfides) that appear to increase the activity of immune cells that fight cancer and indirectly help break down cancer causing substances. These substances also help block carcinogens from entering cells and slow tumor development.
Diallyl sulfide, a component of garlic oil, has also been shown to render carcinogens in the liver inactive.
Studies have linked garlic, as well as onions, leeks, and chives to lower risk of a variety of cancers including stomach, colon, lung, and skin cancer.
Individuals who consume raw or cooked garlic regularly face about half the risk of stomach cancer and two-thirds the risk of colorectal cancer as individuals who eat little or none. Their studies did not show that garlic supplements had the same effect.
It is believed garlic may help prevent stomach cancer because it has anti-bacterial effects against a bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, found in the stomach and known to promote cancer there.
- GRAPEFRUITS :
Like oranges and other citrus fruits, grapefruits contain monoterpenes, which are believed to help prevent cancer by sweeping carcinogens out of the body. Some studies show that grapefruit may inhibit the proliferation of breast-cancer cells in vitro. Grapefruits also contain vitamin C, beta-carotene, and folic acid.
- GRAPES :
Red and purple grapes in particular are a rich source of resveratrol, a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, which inhibits the enzymes that can stimulate cancer-cell growth and suppress immune response. Resveratrol is thought to work by preventing cell damage before it begins.
Grapes also contain ellagic acid, a compound that blocks enzymes that are necessary for cancer cell growth. Ellagic acid also appears to help slow the growth of tumors.
Red grapes also contain bioflavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants that work as cancer preventives.
- KALE :
Considered a cruciferous vegetable, kale contains indoles, which are a nitrogen compound that may help stop the conversion of certain lesions to cancerous cells in estrogen-sensitive tissues.
In addition, isothiocyanates, phytochemicals found in kale, are thought to suppress tumor growth and block cancer-causing substances from reaching their targets.
- LICORICE ROOT :
Licorice root has a chemical, glycyrrhizin, that blocks a component of testosterone and therefore may help prevent the growth of prostate cancer. However, excessive amounts can lead to elevated blood pressure.
- MUSHROOMS :
There are a number of mushrooms that appear to help the body fight cancer and build the immune system. They include shiitake, maitake, reishi, Agaricus blazei Murill, and Coriolus versicolor.
The active ingredients in medicinal mushrooms are polysaccharides called beta-glucans. These beta-glucans are powerful compounds that help in building immunity.
Examples of beta-glucans include lentinan and a unique beta-glucan called D-fraction, that is found in the maitake mushroom. This D-fraction is believed to be responsible for the many health benefits ofmaitake.These mushrooms also have a protein called lectin, which attacks cancerous cells and prevents them from multiplying. They also contain thioproline. These mushrooms can stimulate the production of interferon in the body.
Extracts from mushrooms have been successfully tested in recent years in Japan as an adjunct to chemotherapy.
- NUTS :
Many nuts contain the antioxidants quercetin and campferol that may suppress the growth of cancers. Brazil nuts contain 80 micrograms of selenium, which is important for those with prostate cancer.
- ORANGES AND LEMONS :
Oranges and lemons both contain limonene, which stimulates cancer-killing immune cells like lymphocytes that may also function in breaking down cancer-causing substances.
- PAPAYAS :
They have vitamin C, which is an antioxidant and may also reduce absorption of cancercausing nitrosamines from the soil or processed foods. Papaya contains folacin (also known as folic acid), which has been shown to minimize cervical dysplasia and certain cancers.
- RED WINE :
Red wine has polyphenols that may protect against various types of cancer. Polyphenols are potent antioxidants, compounds that help neutralize disease-causing free radicals.
Also, researchers found the compound resveratrol, which is present in grape skins. It appears that resveratrol inhibits cell proliferation and can help prevent cancer.
However, the findings didn’t extend to heavy imbibers, so wine should be used in moderation. In addition, alcohol can be toxic to the liver and to the nervous system, and many wines have sulfites, which may be harmful to your health.
- ROSEMARY :
Rosemary may help increase the activity of detoxification enzymes. An extract of rosemary, termed carnosol, has inhibited the development of both breast and skin tumors in animals. No comparable studies have as yet been conducted on humans. Rosemary can be used as a seasoning and it can also be consumed as a tea.
- SEAWEED AND OTHER SEA VEGETABLES :
Sea vegetables contain beta-carotene, protein, vitamin B12, fiber, and chlorophyll, as well as chlorophylones, which are important fatty acids that may help combat breast cancer. Many sea vegetables also have high concentrations of the minerals potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and iodine.
- SOY PRODUCTS :
Soy products like tofu contain several types of phytoestrogens which are weak, nonsteroidal estrogens that resemble some of the body’s natural hormones. These compounds could help prevent both breast and prostate cancer by blocking and suppressing cancerous changes.
There are a number of isoflavones in soy products, but research has shown that genistein is the most potent inhibitor of the growth and spread of cancerous cells.
It appears to lower breast cancer risk by inhibiting the growth of epithelial cells and new blood vessels that tumors require to flourish, and is being scrutinized as a potential anticancer drug.
However, there are some precautions to consider when adding soy to the diet. Eating up to four or five ounces of tofu or other soy products a day is probably fine, but research is being done to see if loading up on soy could cause hormone imbalances that stimulate cancer growth.
As a precaution, women who have breast cancer or are at high risk should talk to their doctors before taking pure isoflavone powder and pills, which are extracted from soy.
- SWEET POTATOES :
Sweet potatoes contain many anticancer properties, including beta-carotene, which may protect DNA in the cell nucleus from cancercausing chemicals outside the nuclear membrane.
- TEAS :
Green tea and black tea contain certain antioxidants known as polyphenols (catechins) which appear to prevent cancer cells from dividing.
Green tea is best, followed by black tea (herbal teas do not show this benefit).
According to a report in the July 2001 issue of the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, the polyphenols that are abundant in green tea, red wine, and olive oil may protect against various types of cancer.
Study findings have suggested that dry green tea leaves, which are about 40% polyphenols by weight, may also reduce the risk of cancer of the stomach, lung, colon, rectum, liver, and pancreas.
- TOMATOES :
Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that attacks roaming oxygen molecules, known as free radicals, which are suspected of triggering cancer. Lycopene appears to be more easily absorbed if the tomatoes are eaten in processed form—either as tomato sauce, paste, or juice. It appears that the hotter the weather, the more lycopene tomatoes produce.
Lycopene has been shown to be especially potent in combating prostate cancer and may also protect against breast, lung, stomach, and pancreatic cancer.
Scientists in Israel have shown that lycopene can kill mouth cancer cells. An increased intake of lycopene has already been linked to a reduced risk of breast, prostate, pancreas, and colorectal cancer.
Recent studies indicate that for proper absorption, the body also needs some oil along with lycopene.
Tomatoes also have vitamin C, an antioxidant that can prevent cellular damage that leads to cancer. Watermelons, carrots, and red peppers also contain these substances, but in lesser quantities. It is concentrated by cooking tomatoes.
- TURMERIC :
Turmeric is amember of the ginger family and is believed to have medicinal properties. Turmeric appears to inhibit the production of the inflammation related enzyme cyclo-oxygenase 2 (COX-2), which reaches abnormally high levels in certain inflammatory diseases and cancers, especially bowel and colon cancer.
A pharmaceutical company hopes to introduce a natural product, P54, that contains certain volatile oils, which greatly increase the potency of the turmeric spice.
- WHOLE GRAINS :
Whole grains contain a variety of anticancer compounds, including fiber, antioxidants, and phytoestrogens.When eaten as part of a balanced diet, whole grains can help decrease the risk of developing most types of cancer.
The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) maintains a list of foods thought to fight cancer. The list is constantly updated based on highquality research and provides references to recent studies. As of 2012, the list included: Apples, beans, berries (acёaıґ, blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries), broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale), flaxseed, garlic, grapes and grape juice, green tea, legumes (dry beans, peas, lentils), soy, tomatoes, whole grains, winter squash. Expected to be added soon were: carrots, cherries, chili peppers, citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, grapefruit), melons, mushrooms, nuts, onions, papayas, pomegranates, sweet potatoes.
A considerable amount of information and knowledge has been accumulated regarding cancerfighting foods. No single food or food substance alone can protect an individual against cancer, but the right combination of plant-based foods in the diet can greatly increase the chances of avoiding cancer. Evidence is mounting that the minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytochemicals in many plant foods interact to provide extra cancer protection by working synergistically in the body. For this reason, many nutrition scientists recommend that at least two-thirds of a person’s diet should consist of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. High intakes of individual vitamins can carry specific risks in certain people—for example, high levels of beta-carotene may increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers.
Children can greatly benefit from a diet rich in cancer-fighting foods. The healthy diet will promote a lifetime of good health as well as encourage proper growth. However, vitamin supplementation is not recommended outside of a physician’s or registered dietitian’s care as children have different vitamin requirements and the level of doses appropriate for an adult may not be the same for a child.