There are over 100 forms of cancer -- lung, uterine, colon, breast, prostate, to name a few -- and none are pleasant. Environment, lifestyle and genes all influence the likelihood that a person may develop cancer. While we can't do anything about our genetics (yet), we do have control over lifestyle choices, including what we put into our bodies. So while scientists are hard at work in their labs searching for a cure, you can do your part by choosing your diet wisely.
Evidence is mounting that what we eat and how we prepare our food have a profound effect on whether or not cancer will strike. In fact, poor nutrition combined with physical inactivity and obesity can be blamed for about a third of all cancer deaths each year, says the American Cancer Society. Follow these food rules to put the odds in your favor.
Load up on cruciferous veggies
Vegetables from the Brassica family (like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale) contain glucosinolates, which form isothiocyanates (such as sulforaphane) and indoles (such as indole-3-carbinol), compounds which may help prevent cancer cells from multiplying, says Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, DC. They also stimulate enzymes that de-activate carcinogens before they even start cell damage. Research suggests these veggies may help prevent lung, colorectal, stomach, breast, prostate, bladder and endometrial cancers.
Try this: Steam, microwave, stir-fry or sauté instead of boiling to retain glucosinolates. And cook just until tender-crisp, with greens still bright. “Overcooking makes them smelly and unattractive,” says Collins.
Have a berry banquet
Almost all berries are rich in ellagic acid which laboratory studies (in cells and animals) show can decrease growth and stimulate self-destruction of mouth, breast, cervix, stomach, colon, esophageal and prostate cancers. Most berries are also filled with anthocyanins and other flavonoids that give them strong antioxidant effects, as well.
Try this: Top plain yogurt with berries instead of buying high-sugar yogurts. Or add to a green salad for a burst of sweetness.
If you have a drink, choose red wine
Red wine (and grapes, purple grape juice, peanuts and certain berries) contain resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant that has been shown in lab studies to thwart the growth of cancer cells.
Remember this: Keep alcohol to no more than one drink a day. Too much alcohol raises the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, and breast, and probably of the colon, rectum and liver.
Manga pasta (preferably whole wheat) with red sauce
Tomatoes get their color from an antioxidant compound called lycopene, which some studies have found may lower the risk of prostate cancer, as well as possibly breast, lung, and stomach cancers. Studies that have looked at lycopene levels in the blood found they were higher after people ate cooked tomatoes (as compared to raw), suggesting that the body may better absorb lycopene from cooked tomato products (like in sauce).
Keep in mind: A small amount of fat enhances the absorption of lycopene, says Collins, so don’t forget a dash of olive oil in the sauce.
Fill up on fiber
Whole grains (barley, brown rice, oatmeal), vegetables (including beans) and fruits are high in dietary fiber, which can’t be absorbed by the body, so it passes relatively intact through the digestive tract. Because of this, it helps dilute the toxic (and possibly cancer-causing) substances in your body and zip them out quicker.
Studies on fiber and cancer prevention suggest that high fiber diets are associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer, and possibly others. High fiber intake is also associated with better weight control (by making you feel fuller longer), and therefore could indirectly help reduce the risk of weight-related cancers like colorectal, post-menopausal breast, kidney, pancreatic, endometrial and esophageal.
To help you choose: Look for “whole” something as the first ingredient (like whole wheat flour), when choosing breads, cereals, rice, pasta and crackers suggests Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society. Don’t be fooled by labels like “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” or “seven-grain” on the package, which don’t mean whole grain. Aim for at least five grams of fiber per serving.
Go easy on the grill
Meats grilled at very high temperatures form chemicals called hetero-cyclic amines (HCAs), which might increase cancer risk. Instead of going for the char, grill at medium heat, or precook in the microwave. Also, remove visible fat, and cook food in the center of the grill with the coals on the side to prevent dripping fat and juices.
Try this: Marinate meat in a spicy sauce before grilling. A study in The Journal of Food Science found that soaking steaks in a Caribbean marinade for an hour cut HCAs by almost 90 percent.
Leslie Pepper is a freelance writer based in Merrick, NY who specializes in diet and health. Her work has been published in print magazines such as Real Simple, Woman's Day, and Parents, as well as online publications such as WebMD.com and Everydayhealth.com.