In the battle to combat cancer, nutrition can be one of our most surprising defense tactics – when it’s used in combination with other strategies. “Nutrients work in synergy,” says Shayne Robinson, RD, an oncology dietitian with Continuum Cancer Centers of New York. “No single nutrient or food is going to protect your body against cancer. It’s a combination of foods, exercise and healthy weight.”
Secret food weapons
The most surefire way to get cancer-fighting benefits at every meal is to fill two-thirds of your dinner plate with plant foods. Plate foods are vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and whole grains. Fill the remaining one-third with lean animal foods. Here are a few food options that contain cancer-fighting agents and a lot of flavor.
Beans pack a one-two punch against cancer-causing agents with fiber and compounds like saponins, protease inhibitors and phytic acid, which remove toxins from the body and protect cells.
Super foods: Lentils, black beans, peas and soybeans
In the kitchen: Soybeans have been transformed into much more than tofu in recent years. Use soymilk on your cereal or in your coffee. Or, boil and mash soybeans (labeled edamame in the freezer section) as a side dish substitute for mashed potatoes. If soy isn’t to your taste, make your own hummus with chickpeas or canelinni beans, add peas to your salad, or make vegetarian chili loaded with kidney, red and black beans.
All berries are excellent sources of vitamin C, fiber and anti-cancer agents called phytochemicals, which shield our cells from damaging free radicals. Ellagic acid, found specifically in strawberries and raspberries, has also been proven to act as an antioxidant by helping the body destroy specific cancer-causing agents and slow the reproduction of cancer cells.
Super foods: Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries
In the kitchen: When you can’t buy fresh fruit in season, head to the freezer section of your grocery store. “Many frozen berries are picked and frozen at the peak of freshness,” Robinson says. “The quality and flavor can be better than berries that are picked out of season.”
Red fruits and vegetables
Lycopene is a substance that puts the red in tomatoes and other foods, like pink grapefruit and watermelon. It protects cells from free radicals and also protects against heart disease. Remember, the only way to get the health benefit is to eat whole foods. “When we take single phytochemicals and vitamins and minerals out of the food source and put them into supplements, they don’t have the same effect on the body,” Robinson says.
Super foods: Tomatoes, pink grapefruit, apricots and watermelon
In the kitchen: Cooking tomatoes enhances the potency of lycopene, so break out the tomato soup recipes, make homemade marinara, or blend your own tomato juice with peeled and cooked tomatoes.
Whole grains make use of the fiber- and nutrient-rich parts of the grain, which contain antioxidants and prevent a spike in blood sugar. “Choose whole grains on the lower end of the processing spectrum,” Robinson says. “Boiling your own brown rice is better than buying rice chips or crackers where you can’t really recognize the actual food.”
Super foods: Whole-wheat bread, quinoa, oatmeal and brown rice
In the kitchen: Grab a bag of low-sugar instant oatmeal if you need a quick snack, use whole-wheat bread for recipe essentials like breadcrumbs, French toast or croutons, or try making this spicy quinoa salad.
Cruciferous (or, cabbage-related) vegetables
Research suggests that cruciferous vegetables help regulate a complex system of bodily enzymes that defend against cancer and actually stop the growth of cancer cells.
Super foods: Broccoli, kale, cabbage, Swiss chard and cauliflower
In the kitchen: Coleslaw and sauerkraut aren’t the only recipes for cabbage. Shred it and add it to stir-fry, use it as a stuffed pork chop filling or try it as a lettuce substitute in fish tacos. Try tossing broccoli, cauliflower or brussel sprouts with a little olive oil and roasting to bring out the natural flavors of the veggies.
Make it easy to incorporate healthier foods into your diet by starting slowly. Usually reach for crackers as a snack? Pack a snack-size bag of assorted, raw cut vegetables in your lunch bag instead. They’ll still satisfy your hunger and the crunchy texture you crave.
Need help adding more nutritious foods to your diet? Make an appointment with a nutritionist by visiting chpnyc.org or calling 1-855-411-5969. You can also find recipes for living well at LiveWellNewYork.com.