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Foods that are thought to be the best for fighting cancer

Foods that are thought to be the best for fighting cancer

Picture of Debra  Sherman

This is a second installment to Debra Sherman's first post: Food for thought: Will almonds be part of a cancer-fighting arsenal one day?


A good source of fiber and vitamin C. Most of the antioxidant power they provide comes from phytonutrients, or photochemicals, including Quercetin, a flavonoid that shows anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. 


An excellent source of vitamins C and K, manganese and a good source of dietary fiber. They are among the fruits highest in antioxidant power, largely due to their many phytochemicals, including Anthocyanins, catechins, quercetin, kaempferol and other flavonoids, Ellagitannins and ellagic acid, Pterostilbene and resveratrol.


Both sweet and tart cherries are a good source of fiber, vitamin C, and potassium. Tart cherries, but not sweet cherries or tart cherry juice, are also an excellent source of vitamin A. Cherries contain a variety of phytochemicals contributing both color and antioxidant activity. The fruit’s dark red color comes from their high content of anthocyanins, which are antioxidants Hydroxycinnamic acid and perillyl alcohol, a phytochemical from the monoterpene family, provide cherries’ antioxidant power.


The benefit depends on on how the beans are grown and how you prepare the coffee. Overall, it is a good source of the B vitamin riboflavin, and is also a concentrated source of antioxidant phytochemicals. 

It contains  Chlorogenic acid, an antioxidant compound that is the major phenol in coffee, Quinic acid, a phytochemical that contributes to the acidic taste of coffee, Cafestol and kahweol, compounds that are extracted from the beans’ oil during brewing. 

Unfiltered coffee, such as French press or boiled coffee, contains these compounds: Caffeine, a naturally occurring stimulant that affects the central nervous system, N-methylpyridinium (NMB), created by roasting, may make the antioxidants more potent. 


A are good sources of vitamin C and dietary fiber. They’re very high in antioxidant power, most of which comes from the phytochemicals Flavonoids, including anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins and flavonolds, Ursolic acid, Benzoic acid and hydroxycinnamic acid

Cruciferous Vegetables 

Broccoli may be the best known in this group. Others include Brussels sprouts, rapini, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, as well as dark green leafy vegetables, such as  kale and collard greens.

Nearly all of them are excellent or good sources of vitamin C. Some are good sources of manganese. Dark greens are high in vitamin K.

Glucosinolates are compounds found in all cruciferous vegetables Glucosinolates form isothiocyanates and indoles.

Other nutrients and phytochemicals vary:

         •          Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and rapini are all excellent sources of folate, a B vitamin.

         •          Broccoli is a good source of potassium.

         •          Broccoli and Brussels sprouts are good sources of dietary fiber and rich in magnesium.

         •          Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and rapini contain carotenoids such as beta-carotene.

Dark Leafy Vegetables

Spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, leaf lettuce, mustard greens, collard greens, chicory and Swiss chard are excellent sources of fiber, folate and a wide range of carotenoids, such as lutein and zeaxanthin, along with saponins and flavonoids.

According to recent research by AICR, foods containing carotenoids probably protect against cancers of the mouth, pharynx and larynx. Researchers believe that carotenoids seem to prevent cancer by acting as antioxidants – by sweeping away dangerous “free radicals” from the body before they can cause trouble. Some research has found that carotenoids in dark green leafy vegetables can inhibit the growth of certain types of breast cancer cells, skin cancer cells, lung cancer and stomach cancer. Other report noted probable evidence that foods containing folate decrease risk of pancreatic cancer and that foods containing dietary fiber probably reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer.


An excellent source of magnesium, manganese and thiamin, and fiber; a good source of selenium; and provides protein and copper, too.

         •          Lignans: flaxseed is a particularly rich source of these plant estrogens

         •          Dietary fiber: One serving, about 4 tablespoons of ground flaxseed, contains more than 7 grams of fiber.

         •          Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): about half of the fat in flaxseed is this plant form of omega-3 fat.


It belongs to the family of vegetables called Allium, which also includes onions, scallions, leeks and chives. According to AICR research, foods belonging to the allium family of vegetables probably protect against stomach cancer. Evidence in the report shows that garlic, in particular, probably decreases one’s chances of developing colorectal cancer. 


One-half of a medium grapefruit provides at least half of most adults’ daily vitamin C needs. Grapefruit contains these phytochemicals: Naringenin and other flavonoids, Limonin and other limonoids, Beta-carotene and lycopene (pink and red varieties)

Grapes and Grape Juice 

Both are rich sources of resveratrol, a type of natural phytochemical that belongs to a much larger group of phytochemicals called polyphenols.

The skin of the grape contains the most resveratrol, and red and purple grapes contain significantly more resveratrol than green grapes. 

Grape jam and raisins contain much smaller amounts of this phytochemical. Red wine also contains resveratrol. However, with AICR’s researchers noting convincing evidence that alcohol is associated with increased risk for cancers of the mouth, pharynx and larynx, esophagus, breast (pre- and postmenopausal) and colon and rectum (in men), wine is not a recommended source of resveratrol.

Studies suggest that polyphenols in general and resveratrol, in particular, possess potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In laboratory studies, resveratrol prevented the kind of damage known to trigger the cancer process in cell, tissue and animal models. Other laboratory research points to resveratrol’s ability to slow the growth of cancer cells and inhibit the formation of tumors in lymph, liver, stomach and breast cells. Resveratrol has also triggered the death of leukemic and colon cancer tumors. In one series of studies, resveratrol blocked the development of skin, breast and leukemia cancers at all three stages of the disease (initiation, promotion and progression).


Dry beans and peas are rich in fiber and a good source of protein. They are an excellent source of folate, a B vitamin. Foods containing folate help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer probably because of folate’s role in healthy cell division and repair of damaged cells.

Legumes contain other health-promoting substances that may also protect against cancer: Lignans and saponins; resistant starch, starch not digested in the small intestine, is used by healthful bacteria in the colon to produce short-chain fatty acids, which seem to protect colon cells; and antioxidants from a variety of phytochemicals, including triterpenoids, flavonoids, inositol, protease inhibitors and sterols.


Tofu, tempeh, edamame, soymilk and miso are made from soy. It is one of the few plant foods with all the amino acids your body needs to make protein. 

Because soy contains estrogen-like compounds, there was fear that soy may raise risk of hormone-related cancers. Evidence shows this is not true. Soy’s possible effects on health is an active area of research.

Soy contains a variety of phytochemicals and active compounds:

         •          Isoflavones: a group of phytoestrogens that includes genistein, daidzein and glycitein

         •          Saponins: studies suggest these compounds may lower blood cholesterol, protect against cancer and affect blood glucose levels

         •          Phenolic Acids: this group of phytochemicals is being studied for their potential to stop cancer cells from spreading

         •          Phytic Acid: commonly found in cereals and legumes, it can act as an antioxidant

         •          Enzyme-regulating proteins: these include protease inhibitors and protein kinase inhibitors

Sphingolipids: they seem to play a role in regulating cell growth, self-destruction of abnormal cells and progression of tumors


The most common varieties you’ll find in the grocery store are acorn, pumpkin, butternut, and spaghetti. These are excellent sources of vitamin A, good sources of vitamin C and dietary fiber. They are also a good way to get potassium.

They are rich in carotenoids, including:

         •          beta-carotene and alpha-carotene: these carotenoids can act as antioxidants. Also, our bodies convert these to vitamin A, a nutrient important for immune function and maintaining healthy cells among other roles.

         •          lutein and zeaxanthin: these yellow pigmented carotenoids help protect eye health by filtering high-energy ultraviolet rays that can damage our eyes’ lens and retina. They act as antioxidants here and possibly elsewhere in our bodies.


Black and green teas contain numerous active ingredients, including polyphenols and flavonoids, which are potent antioxidants. One class of flavonoids called catechins has recently become the focus of widespread study for their anti-cancer potential. Tea is the best source of catechins in the human diet, and green tea contains about three times the quantity of catechins found in black tea.

Green tea has been shown to slow or completely prevent cancer development in colon, liver, breast and prostate cells. Other studies involving green tea have shown similar protective effects in tissues of the lung, skin and digestive tract.


The red color comes from a phytochemical called lycopene, which has garnered particular attention from prostate cancer researchers. AICR researchers have found substantial and convincing evidence that foods containing lycopene probably protect against prostate cancer.


Walnuts are an excellent source of copper and manganese, and a good source of magnesium.

Although all nuts fit into a cancer-preventive diet, walnuts are most studied for cancer. They contain the omega-3 fat – alpha-linolenic acid – which can make walnuts more susceptible to becoming rancid. 

Walnuts contain high amounts of polyphenols, phytochemicals that have antioxidant properties. They also contain a broad range of other potentially protective compounds:

         •          Elligitannins, which are broken down to ellagic acid

         •          Gamma-tocopherol, one of several types of vitamin E compounds

         •          Alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid

         •          Polyphenols including flavonoids and phenolic acids

         •          Phytosterols, plant compounds known to help lower blood cholesterol that are under study for their potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the body.

Melatonin, a hormone and antioxidant

Whole Grains

Whole grains are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and hundreds of natural plant compounds, called phytochemicals, which protect cells from the types of damage that may lead to cancer. In addition research points to specific substances in whole grains that have been linked to lower cancer risk, including antioxidants, phenols, lignans (which is a kind of phytoestrogen) and saponins.

*Source: American Institute for Cancer Research. 

**Notes: 1.) This list in by no means exhaustive. It is just a sample of some of the foods that are high in nutrients that are thought to have a strong potential for fighting cancer.  2.) Frozen fruits and vegetables are as good as fresh.

Image by comprock via Flickr

This post originally ran on "Cancer in Context" and has been used here with permission from Thompson-Reuters.


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