Though the incidence of cancer in India – despite our diverse food habits – is lower than the West, the dreadful disease is on the rise, thanks to growing urbanisation, increased life expectancy, and changing lifestyles.
Certain age-old habits like vegetarianism, consumption of a variety of home-grown fresh food as against preserved and packaged food, usage of traditional herbs and spices in cooking, were once our protective cover from diseases, including cancer. Not anymore – thanks to newer, not-so-healthy food trends which have lowered our defences against cancer.
It is important for us than ever before to incorporate at least some of the proven cancer-fighting food groups into our daily intake to improve our chances to fight and/or ward off the treacherous disease. Cancer, to place its horror in perspective, is caused by the assault of free radicals in the body.
Free radicals are a large number of harmful compounds released during any oxidation [inflammatory/infection] process. Normally, the body can handle free radicals, but if anti-oxidants are unavailable, or, if the free-radical production becomes excessive, damage can occur.
Vitamins C and E, two celebrated anti-oxidants, are evidenced to protect the body against the destructive effects of free radicals. Just one point: anti-oxidant nutrients don’t transform free radicals, but they act as scavengers helping us prevent cell and tissue damage – the cause of cellular damage and cancer.
Colour your plate
Carotenoids are natural pigments that are responsible for the bright colours in fruits and vegetables. There are anti-oxidants in carotenoids that help prevent free radical damage to cells and also cancers.
Carrots, spinach, broccoli, pumpkin, mango, apricots, and berries, are all rich sources of carotenoids.
Choose fresh vegetables and fruits of bright colours for your meals. The more the colour on your plate, the more anti-oxidant protection you get. But, remember one thing – do not overcook these foods.
Rough and tough
Increasing the roughage, or fibre, in your diet directly reduces the incidence of colon cancer. Roughage reduces the time taken by the wastes to travel through the colon.
High levels of the hormone, oestrogen, are known to stimulate certain types of breast cancer/ tumours to grow and develop. Fibre may, again, help protect against breast cancer by decreasing the dietary fat content and binding to oestrogen.
Fibre is suggested to have a protective effect against mouth, throat, oesophageal and prostate cancers.
Choosing minimally processed foods, whole grain products, eating vegetables with their skins, snacking on fibre-rich fruits and vegetables are great ways to make sure your diet is fibre-rich.
What if you feel there’s a gas chamber, as it were, in your belly? Not to worry. You can quite easily avoid gaseousness and bloating by increasing your fibre intake gradually and also by drinking plenty of water.
E to the rescue
Vitamin E is a natural anti-cancer agent found in wheat germ and other grains, nuts, and beans. It inactivates free radicals, rendering them harmless before they get a chance to harm our DNA. Vitamin E also helps prevent genetic changes [mutations] and tumour growth. Studies specific for vitamin E have proven that it significantly decreases the risk of prostate, colon, and lung cancers.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance [RDA] of vitamin E to obtain protective benefits is up to 10 milligram per day. Another good idea is to choose 1-2 servings of vitamin C rich-foods daily. This will help your body “recycle” vitamin E, and use it repeatedly.
Good sources of vitamin E are soybeans, peanut butter, canola oil, wheat germ, sunflower seeds and almonds.
Vitamin C is a powerful anti-oxidant. It helps to reprocess vitamin E and keeps it active to combat free radicals. Oranges, lemons and other citrus fruits, contain substances that are believed to help prevent cancer by flushing carcinogens, or cancer of the oesophagus, larynx, mouth, pancreas, stomach, colon, and breast.
Get your daily fix of vitamin C from guavas, strawberries, oranges, limes and broccoli; if not, opt for a supplement in consultation with your therapist.
The power of selenium
Needed only in very small amounts, selenium plays a crucial role in our cells’ defences against cancer.
Selenium is a central part of the enzymes that destroy free radicals and also help recycle anti-oxidants in the body.
The richest sources of selenium are cereals, grains, tofu, and Brazil nuts.
Like your lycopene
Lycopene, a substance that gives tomatoes its red colour, is a carotenoid too. Anti-oxidants, such as lycopene, destroy free radicals that wreak havoc on your hard-working immune system. Scientists in Israel have shown that lycopene has the ability to kill mouth cancer cells. An increased intake of lycopene has already been linked to a reduced risk of breast, prostate, pancreas and colorectal cancer.
Lycopene seems to be best available to the body when tomatoes are cooked and eaten in a meal that provides a small amount of fat. Stock up on canned tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato ketchup and cooked tomato sauces for your pastas and pizzas. This is good for you.
The benefits of soy foods was discovered when scientists went to seek an explanation as to why breast cancer risk in Asian, especially Japanese, women was less than in Asian-American women. Isoflavones in soy act as oestrogen policemen, blocking and suppressing cancerous changes.
Ejjat more of soybeans in the form of tofu, roasted soybeans and/or drink soymilk.
Phytochemicals: friendly warriors
These are hospitable chemicals found in plant food.
Vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli belong to the cruciferous family. They are all rich in powerful phytochemicals called isothiocyanates. They have been shown to prevent lung cancer – among non-smokers – including other types of cancer.
Turmeric, a member of the ginger family, is evidenced to have medicinal properties because it inhibits the production of inflammation-related enzyme levels which are abnormally high in certain inflammatory diseases – e.g., bowel and colon cancer. Use fresh and powdered turmeric generously in curries.
Tea, rich in bio-flavonoids and certain anti-oxidants, appears to prevent cancer cells from dividing. Green tea is best, followed by the more common black tea. Similarly, red wine is also suggested to have anti-cancer properties.
Garlic and onion contain substances that increase the activity of our immune cells that fight cancer. Studies suggest they prevent carcinogens from entering the cells. This slows down the development of tumours. Studies have also proved that garlic along with onions lower the risk of stomach and colon cancer.
It should be borne in mind that no particular fruit or vegetable is a magic bullet against cancer. However, a diet rich in these foods will definitely take you a step closer to a healthier lifestyle and a higher probability of leading a cancer-free life.
Grocery lists should be made of these
|Carotenoids||Carrots, broccoli, pumpkin, spinach, mango; all bright coloured fruits and vegetables|
|Vitamin E||Rice bran, wheat germ, soybean, canola oil, peanuts, almonds|
|Vitamin C||Guava, citrus fruits, broccoli|
|Selenium||Cereals, grains, tofu, Brazil nuts|
|Lycopene||Cooked tomatoes, tomato ketchup, sauces, soups, gravies|
|Soy foods||Soybeans, soy nuts, soymilk|
|Cruciferous||Cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli|
|Phytochemicals||Turmeric, garlic, onion, green tea, wine [but in moderation!]|
Definitions you should know
Carcinogen. These are agents/substances that can cause cancer.
Free radicals. These are unstable cells. To attain stability, free radicals steal electrons from other cells, ultimately creating new free radicals in the process. This causes damage to DNA and also risk of cancer.
Oxidation. This is the damage done by the free radicals to the cells.
A freshly-cut apple turning brown is one of the examples of oxidation.
Anti-oxidant. Anti-oxidants are substances that inactivate damaging free radicals and prevent cell damage. They also have the ability to repair previously damaged cells.
ORAC. Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, a measure of a food’s anti-oxidant strength. Check this acronym on provision/packs you buy to eat.