There’s no one magic food that will prevent cancer – but the more small changes we can make the better. Cindy Williams has 10 healthy ideas to get you started.
1. Add tomatoes to soups, pastas and casseroles
Tomatoes get their red colour from lycopene, a carotenoid that has been linked to the reduction of prostate, colon and bladder cancer. A recent review published in the Journal of Nutrition suggested that men who ate the highest amount of lycopene from tomato-based products had a 25–30 per cent reduced risk of prostate cancer. Lycopene from tomatoes is more available and better absorbed by our bodies when tomatoes are cooked, crushed or eaten with a little fat such as olive oil. Just remember to opt for the no-added-salt versions of tinned tomatoes and tomato paste. Eating large amounts of salt has been linked to high blood pressure and strokes and may also increase your risk of stomach cancer.
2. Chow down cruciferous
Vegies like bok choy, cauliflower, broccoli and raw cabbage are cruciferous vegetables that all contain antioxidants. Research suggests these antioxidants may reduce the risk of bladder, stomach, lung and breast cancer and that three or more serves a month of raw cruciferous vegetables could reduce bladder cancer risk by about 40 per cent. A recent study also found the more cruciferous vegies women ate in the three years following breast cancer diagnosis, the more likely they were to survive. Broccoli contains a substance called sulforaphane which in lab studies has been shown to help inhibit the development of stomach, colon and breast cancer. It’s best to make sure the vegetables are raw or just lightly cooked (in a stir-fry, for example) because cooking can destroy 60 to 90 per cent of the anti-cancer compounds.
3. Swap red for white and stay away from the deli
If most of your meals contain red meat, consider making a change. Red meat and smoked or cured meats such as ham, bacon, sausages and salami have been closely linked to colorectal cancer. In a large European study, those over 50 with the highest red and processed meat intakes had a 70 per cent higher risk of developing colorectal cancer compared to those with the lowest intake. Cancer Council Australia recommends avoiding processed meats altogether and limiting red meat to 3–4 times per week.
4. Get your grains
Evidence suggests that wholegrain cereal foods can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by up to 30 per cent and gastrointestinal cancer by up to 41 per cent. Other research suggests a link with a reduced risk of breast, endometrial and prostate cancers. This is why Cancer Council Australia recommends you eat at least two serves of wholegrain or wholemeal foods every day (or ensure about half your daily serves of breads and cereals are wholegrain or wholemeal varieties). Choose a wholegrain cereal for your brekkie or make your sandwich on multigrain bread.
5. Peel or chop garlic 10–15 minutes before cooking
When we chop garlic it starts a reaction that produces anti-cancer compounds, called allyl sulphides. If garlic is left for 10–15 minutes after chopping, these compounds will be retained during cooking. If garlic is cooked too soon, there won’t be much of these anti-cancer compounds produced. The World Cancer Research Fund states that garlic probably protects against colorectal and stomach cancer. In animal studies and laboratory tests, the allyl sulphides found in garlic inhibit colon tumour formation. Garlic also has antibiotic properties which are thought to help protect against stomach cancer.
6. Check your folate
Spinach, silverbeet and dark green leafy vegetables are rich in folate and antioxidants. Folate is essential for normal DNA functioning – it helps make and repair DNA which, when damaged, may lead to cancer. Studies into these antioxidants found in these greens have shown they may reduce the risk of cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, lung and oesophagus. Try adding spinach or silverbeet to your next pasta, salad or quiche.
7. Snack on one or two Brazil nuts each day
Brazil nuts are high in the mineral selenium, a powerful antioxidant that has been linked to reducing the risk of skin cancer. An Australian study showed those with the highest selenium levels had almost 60 per cent less skin cancer tumours. Other evidence suggests a link with less prostate cancer. Men with prostate cancer who took selenium and vitamin E supplements for three to six weeks before having their prostate removed were found to have altered prostate cells to make them more like non-cancerous cells. Remember, though, that too much is not better – selenium can be toxic in very high doses so stick to two Brazil nuts a day as part of your morning snack.
8. Swap barbied meat for roasts and casseroles
Cooking meat at high temperatures and charring or burning it increases the presence of cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) in the meat. HCAs form when amino acids and creatine (from muscle) react at high cooking temperatures. One study found three times more HCAs were present in meat cooked at 250°C compared to meat cooked at 200°C. A roast has less nasty HCAs than a well-cooked steak – but not if it’s served with gravy made from the meat drippings. Those burnt bits stuck at the base of the pan may taste good, but are not so good for your risk of cancer. Serve your roast meat with mustard, mint sauce or apple sauce instead.
9. Go for a walk
According to Cancer Council Australia, physical inactivity is responsible for 14 per cent of colon cancers and 11 per cent of post-menopausal breast cancers. A survey of 15,000 women found that exercise had a protective effect against breast cancer throughout their lives, provided they didn’t have a family history of breast cancer. This is because exercising lowers oestrogen levels, which is thought to be protective against breast cancer. The recommended amount of exercise is 60 minutes a day (including some where you push yourself) to cut your risk.
10. Cut the alcohol
There’s strong evidence that drinking alcohol can increase your risk of a number of cancers, including bowel, oesphagus, liver and breast cancer. The more you drink, the higher the risk – even if it’s just one standard drink a day. While some studies have suggested a small amount of alcohol can help protect against heart disease, the World Cancer Research Fund and Cancer Council Australia recommend that if you choose to drink at all, do so in moderation. This means no more than one standard drink per day for women and no more than two for men. It’s the alcohol itself that does the damage, so if you do drink, opt for a low-alcohol wine or beer, or try diluting your drink, for example adding mineral water to white wine.