15 foods that cut your cancer risk
ou don't smoke, you know your family history of every cancer under the sun (including skin cancer) and you never fall behind on an annual checkup.
But there's still something – well, a lot, actually – you can do to slim your cancer risk. Namely, watch what you eat. Your food choices either increase or decrease your risk of cancer in a big way, with poor nutrition contributing about 30 percent of all diagnosed cancer cases, according to Anna Taylor, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic.
And while being overweight or obese is linked with an increased risk for 10 different types of cancers, including breast, pancreatic, endometrial and colon cancers, a multitude of healthy weight-supporting foods also contain certain phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals that have anti-carcinogenic effects. "These nutrients help protect the body from carcinogens in the environment and reduce DNA damage," Taylor says. "Many unprocessed foods, especially plant foods, contain a variety of these compounds that work together synergistically to decrease cancer risk." (FYI, that's why whole foods, not isolated supplements, are best for reducing cancer risk.)
Ready to reduce your cancer risk – and maybe even drop a few pounds while you're at it? Start filling up on these 15 cancer-fighting foods:
1. Whole Grains
A 2016 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that eating a high-fiber diet decreases women's risk of breast cancer. Foods that are high in fiber, and especially whole grains like whole-wheat bread, quinoa and oats, promote satiety and healthy weight, and may even keep breast cancer cells from binding to estrogen and spurring the growth of breast cancer, Taylor says.
Lycopene, a major antioxidant in tomatoes that gives them their red color, can help stop breast cancer before it starts, per 2015 research in the Journal of Cancer Prevention.
Meanwhile, beta-carotene and vitamin C in tomatoes have been linked to a lower risk of esophageal cancer, Taylor says. To get the most out of your tomatoes, turn up the heat. Cooking tomatoes actually improves the body's ability to absorb lycopene, thereby cutting cancer risk, according to one British Journal of Nutrition study.
Along with cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, broccoli is rich in phenethyl isothiocyanate, or PEITC, which 2016 research in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research suggests reduces men's risk of prostate cancer. Researchers believe PEITC may fight cancer by flipping on and off a person's genes – obviously for the better. What's more, "cruciferous veggies contain glucosinolates and indoles, which are phytonutrients that appear to reduce the risk of several types of cancer by decreasing inflammation, inhibiting enzymes that are pro-carcinogenic and by stimulating enzymes that are anti-carcinogenic," Taylor says. For an extra cancer-fighting punch, eat your broccoli alongside tomatoes. A previous Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study found that broccoli and tomatoes, when eaten in combination, are better at fighting existing cancer tumors than when eaten separately.
"We have hundreds of studies that suggest curcumin can help prevent cancer, including pancreatic, colon, prostate, liver, esophageal and multiple myeloma, by promoting apoptosis or 'cell suicide' of cancer cells, and by slowing the growth of tumors," Taylor says. In fact, 2013 research in Current Pharmaceutical Design even explored the possibility of using the spice to develop new medical treatments to combat cancer in the future.
5. Black Raspberries
They might look the same as blackberries, but besides being less tart than their doppelgängers, 2015 research from The Ohio State University shows that antioxidants from black raspberries can penetrate existing oral cancer tumors to slow their growth. Plus, black raspberries (and most any berries, for that matter) are rich in vitamin C, fiber and ellagic acid, all of which help protect the body against cancer.
6. Vitamin D-Fortified Milk
Vitamin D deficiency is linked with increased risk of several types of cancers, while 2016 research from the Stanford University School of Medicine shows that vitamin D mitigates obesity's role in the development of breast cancer by reducing the body's production of mammary estrogens. Unfortunately, up to 41.6 percent of Americans are deficient in the cancer-fighting vitamin, according to evidence published in Nutrition Research. To get more D, Taylor suggests reaching for vitamin D-fortified dairy products like milk. Bonus: Consuming low-fat dairy is linked with healthier body masses, which is critical to cancer prevention.
Your happy-hour habit may actually do your body good. In one 2015 study from the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, people who regularly consumed anthocyanidins, flavonoids commonly found in wine, had a 57 percent reduced risk of esophageal cancer than those who didn't drink up. Flavonoids, antioxidant compounds contained in grape skins, may also influence gene expression to reduce the risk of cancer, according to 2015 research in Clinical Epigenetics. The key, however, is moderation. Taylor recommends that men and women drink no more than one or two alcoholic beverages per day, respectively, if they want to keep their cancer risk low.
Your significant other will love this one: Eating garlic reduces the risk of gastric cancer, according to a 2015 University of Sydney meta-analysis of more than 20,000 people. "There are several substances in allium vegetables, such as garlic, that are being studied to explore possible anti-cancer benefits," says Taylor, noting that, in the lab, one of garlic's compounds, diallyl disulfide, has actually killed leukemia cells.
Men who eat fatty fish like salmon at least once a week are 57 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer compared to men who never get fishy, according to research published in the International Journal of Cancer. Meanwhile, women who get their fill of omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish enjoy a lower risk of breast cancer, per a 2015 review from the University of Kansas Medical Center. EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, may reduce the ability of other harmful fatty acids to spur inflammation in the body, according to researchers.
Soy foods contain myriad phytonutrients and other substances that protect the body from cancer, Taylor says. The big one seems to be isoflavones, estrogen-mimicking compounds researchers believe that, by blocking the body's naturally stronger form of estrogen from attaching to breast cancer cells, reduces the growth of estrogen-dependent tumors. For example, in one study of 97,275 women, those who consumed even a few ounces of soy milk each day reduced their risk of ovarian cancer. Meanwhile, results the Shanghai Women's Health Study show that women who eat the most soy during adolescence and early adulthood cut their risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer by about 60 percent.
11. Green Tea
Seriously, what can't green tea do? Research published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry shows that drinking green tea prevents skin cancer, the most common form of cancer. Green tea is rich in epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG, a polyphenol that has intense antioxidant powers, helping to protect your DNA from free radical damage, according to the National Cancer Institute. In laboratory and animal studies, polyphenols including EGCG have been shown to slow cancer growth and even cause the death of cancerous cells.
Eating about 2 cups of fresh mushrooms every day can decrease your risk of breast cancer by about two-thirds, per one International Journal of Cancer study. How does that work? Mushrooms contain compounds that prevent estrogen levels from getting too high, explains Shiuan Chen, associate chair and professor of the City of Hope Department of Cancer Biology in California. And, since estrogen is involved in the development of 70 percent of breast cancers, keeping your hormone levels in check is a big win.
Java addicts, rejoice! In one University of Minnesota study of 63,257 men and women, daily coffee consumption significantly reduced the risk of gastric cancer, especially in women. "Coffee contains several phytonutrients and compounds that serve as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and may serve other functions to protect against cancer," Taylor says, noting that coffee and has been linked to a lower risk of endometrial, colorectal and liver cancers as well as melanoma. In fact, research from the University of Scranton has ID'ed coffee as the No. 1 source of antioxidants in the average American's diet.
14. Olive Oil
"Olive oil contains several compounds, such as squalene, polyphenols and tocopherols that provide anti-inflammatory, antioxidant benefits," Taylor says. That may be one reason the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in olive oil, was found in one 2015 JAMA Internal Medicine study to decrease women's risk of breast cancer. It's worth mentioning, though, that plenty of other foods on this list, including fruits, veggies, fatty fish and wine, are also part of the Mediterranean diet. Opt for extra-virgin olive oil whenever possible; it's the least processed form of olive oil and retains the most cancer-fighting nutrients, Taylor says.
15. Brazil Nuts
These seeds, which love to masquerade as nuts, contain more selenium than any other food lining your supermarket shelves. Selenium, a dietary mineral with powerful antioxidant capacities, is linked with a reduced risk of stomach, bladder and prostate cancer, and a 60 percent lower risk of cancer mortality, according to a 2014 Cochrane review. What's more, a handful of the seeds meets about 10 percent of your daily fiber needs to further reduce your cancer risk.