What foods can we eat to prevent cancer?

Nutritional expert Patrick Holford highlights that most cancers are the result of changes we have made to our chemical environment. In other words, what we eat, drink and breathe have an impact.

“What we eat is especially relevant. Today’s diet of refined foods laced with chemicals and devoid of nutrients is now thought to be the greatest single contributor to cancer risk,” says Holford.

The right diet can cut your risk of cancer by up to 40%, according to the World Cancer Research Fund.

The heroes

The book Healing Foods by Margaret Roberts, lists a number of superfoods that help to prevent cancer.

The superfoods, according to Roberts, can be broken down into five categories, each with a host of foods in each. These are:

  1. Vegetables: Asparagus, beetroot, cabbage family, carrots, endives, garlic, horseradish, lettuce, mustard, potatoes (baked not fried), radishes, all colours of peppers, sweet potatoes, turnips and turnip tops (the part you might cut off and throw away), and watercress.
  2. Fruit: All citrus fruits, all the berries, apples, apricots, fruit salad plant, peaches, persimmons, and spanspek.
  3. Grains and pulses: All the beans (including butter beans, haricot beans, hyacinth beans and jugo beans), barley grass, brown rice, buckwheat, chickpeas, lentils, millet, wheat grass, and whole wheat.
  4. Seeds and nuts: Almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and walnuts.
  5. Herbs and spices: Chamomile, cloves, fennel, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme, violets, and ginger.

In addition to these foods highlighted by Roberts, the South African Mushroom Farmers’ Association reveals the importance of mushrooms in fighting off cancer. The Association notes that mushrooms “have breast cancer fighting properties that could establish them as important partners in the battle to win” the fight against cancer.

Furthermore, the Association points out that research indicates that mushrooms may also help prevent cancer by providing natural antioxidant compounds. Dr Shiuan Chen, from the Beckman Research Institute of the City of Hope in Duarte, California, says: “Eating mushrooms would be an easy intervention. It could provide a cost-effective whole-food option for cancer risk reduction.”

Gert Coetzee, a pharmacist and the founder of The Diet Everyone Talks About, adds that the following foods can, in addition to those already mentioned above, decrease your chances of getting breast cancer.

  • Pomegranates: The seeds of the pomegranate contain ellagic acid, a natural phenol antioxidant, which may inhibit an enzyme that plays a role in breast cancer development.
  • Eggs: Coetzee highlights that a US study involving more than 3000 women found that the choline found in eggs is associated with a 24% reduction in the risk of breast cancer.
  • Salmon: Salmon contains vitamin D, which Coetzee points out is known to prevent cells from becoming cancerous. “According to researchers at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, the increased intakes of vitamin D were associated with a 24% reduction in the risk of developing breast cancer.”
  • Spinach: “According to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the vitamin B in spinach is necessary for proper cell division which helps in reducing the chances of getting breast cancer,” Coetzee reveals.
  • Rye Bread: Coetzee points out that rye bread contains fibre, vitamins and minerals, which Finnish scientists have determined make it a breast cancer fighter.
  • Plums: These contain two types of antioxidants, which Coetzee says may help kill breast cancer according to research that have been conducted.

It’s not just the food but where it comes from too

While the above foods are considered healthy and help fight against cancer. There is much more that needs to be considered. Desi Horsman, a nutritionist and wellness expert, highlights the impact that pesticides can have.

Horsman explains that many pesticides, specifically ones containing organophosphates, are zeno oestrogen, meaning mimic the oestrogen naturally produced by your body and help things grow, which will include any tumours or cancer cells you may have. Even when food in stores say, ‘washed and ready to eat’, Horsman advises washing the fruit or vegetables anyway to remove anything that may still be present.

“For those who actually do have a cancer scare, or have cancer in the family, I would go as far as saying, there are sprays that you get that will try and remove as much pesticide as possible, and you also get the O3 Washer (R2499 on Yuppiechef), a little machine where you throw in all your vegetables and fruit and it washes for about six minutes and it removes as much as possible, all the additives and things that they have put on,” says Horsman.

Fried foods are also a big no-no when it comes to eating healthy to prevent cancer. In addition to fried food, you also have to take note of your good and bad fats. Horsman explains: “Your healthy fats would be things like your nuts, your seeds, your avos, your coconut oils, those are healthy fats, and also a good form of fish, deep seas cold water fish, like your salmons and your tuna, that will be a healthier fat.

“Your unhealthy fats would be animals that are reared in factories and places where they are not out in nature, they are fed junk, they are fed GM (genetically modified) foods, they are fed leftovers, they are fed anything, and then those animals, all the food that they’ve had, all the toxins are stored in their fat. If you are going to eat your animal fats, like your butters and your creams, and of course the fat in the meat, you have to make sure it’s a good source of meat, it usually says those are pasture reared and fed.”

The villains

As in the movies, for every superhero there is a villain. The same is true of food. For all the healthy foods available, there are a slew of unhealthy foods you can indulge in. Among these danger foods which can increase your risks of getting cancer and according to Roberts, are:

  • Animal protein. According to Roberts, “most meat today is contaminated with chemicals, hormones, tenderisers, antibiotics, even pesticide residues.”
  • Char-grilled steaks and barbequed meats that have been burned at the edges.
  • Processed, smoked and salted meats such as bacon, ham and salami.
  • Coal tar dyes in foods, chemical colourants such as tartrazine, stabilisers, emulsifiers, and artificial colourants.
  • Rancid fats and oils, and saturated fats.
  • Anything mouldy. Roberts cautions: “Beware of stored peanuts and rancid nuts and mould on the nuts.”
  • Refined sugar, and artificial sweeteners.
  • Alcohol, caffeine and carbonated drinks.

Furthermore, Roberts warns against overheated oils that burn the food and coated, non-stick pans. Sandy Roberts (associated with the book Healing Foods’ and Margaret Roberts), explains that peanuts should be avoided entirely and all mouldy foods should be avoided.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

While there are dietary steps you can take to help reduce your risk of cancer, you cannot rely on this alone. Horsman believes there’s no one cure or solution to reducing your chance of cancer, you have to approach this multi-dimensionally. This means that while a good diet with ‘clean’ food is a start, there are other steps you can take to help you reduce your risk of cancer.

“I would say that your nutrition and your supplements, your super foods, all of those, it’s 50%. The other 50% of avoiding any form of illness, particularly cancer, would be your emotions, your stress, and your lifestyle. You can be a vegan and eat only the best foods, but if you aren’t dealing with your stress and your emotions, the likelihood of getting cancer is there. And the same is the other way around, so nutrition is foundational, but number one you have to get on top of your life and what’s happening,” stresses Horsman.

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