Food as medicine: cancer prevention

Statistics show that there are some 2 million people diagnosed with cancer every year in the UK, which is set to rise to 40 million by 2030. This means that 1:3 people will have a cancer diagnosis at some time in their life. Staggering, if not alarming statistics. However, as with so much else to do with health, the good news  is that the vast majority of cancers (particularly those occurring in women over 40) are preventable.

According to Jean Carper in her book - Food your Miracle Medicine - anti-cancer compounds are concentrated in fresh fruit and vegetables and act in a number of different ways. According to one study, undertaken at the university of Minesota, certain food and food compounds can interfere with the cancer process at about 10 stages of development. These foods can prevent would be cancer agents (eg oncogenes) from being activated, or they can block the mutation of a cell's DNA and reduce the ability of cancer cells to proliferate. Certain enzymes have an ability to  flush away cancer causing chemicals in the body and neutralize toxic agents that promote cancer.  Hormonal effects have also been identified as having a role in cancer prevention.

The further good news is that vitamins have also been found to have potent anti-cancer effects; the best studied being good old vitamin C. In fact, a 1990 American National Cancer Institute report concluded that "vitamin C has multiple complex effects on a variety of biological activities, perhaps more widespread than any other nutrient". For example vitamin C can block the transformation of amines and nitrates into cancer causing agents such as nitrosamines. It can also neutralize free radical activity at cellular level, thereby halting the first stages of the cancer process and, by regulating the immune system,  vitamin C also  helps to prevent oncogenes and viruses from transforming healthy cells into cancerous ones. Some animal studies have also demonstrated that Vitamin C can suppress growth  and virulence of existing tumours. So, powerful stuff!

So, what types of foods should we be having more of?

Foods with high levels of anti-cancer activity -

Vegetables - garlic, cabbage, liquorice, soya beans,  umbelliferous vegetables ( eg carrots, celery parsley), onions, cruciferous vegetables (eg broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts) and solanaceous vegetables (eg aubergine, tomato, pepper), potato.

Fruit - citrus fruits (eg orange, grapefruit, lemon), cantaloupe melon, berries.

Herbs and spices  - turmeric, basil, tarragon, oregano, ginger, rosemary, sage, thyme, chive, mints

Other foods - seafood, olive oil, oats, brown rice, whole wheat, flax, barley, tea.

You might also be interested in a further breakdown of what's going on. So here is a list of everyday foods and their actions, some of which you may already be familiar and a few you might not.

The A-Z of some naturally occurring food chemicals with anti-cancer activity -

Allylic sulphides - found in garlic, onions and chives
Carotenoids - found in leafy green veg, carrots and sweet potatoes
Catechins - found in tea and berries
Coumarins - found in carrots, parsley and citrus fruits
Ellagic acid - found in grapes, strawberries, raspberries, walnuts
Indoles - found in brocolli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, brussel sprouts
Isothiocyanates - found in mustard, horseradish,radishes
Lignans - soya beans and flax seed
Limonoids - found in citrus fruits
Protease inhibitors - soya beans, legumes, nuts, grains and seeds
Sulphoraphane - found in brocolli, green onions, kale, red cabbage, brussel sprouts, ginger cauliflower, red leaf lettuce

Much of what's listed above is actually in season here in the UK. So, get creative in the kitchen. Where possible eat fruit and veg raw and experiment with a range of home-made juices, as they're a delicious way to get an array of interesting ingredients which might be harder to achieve in conventional cooking. So, this autumn, eat seasonably, tuck in and enjoy!

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