Top Cancer-Fighting Foods

Mounting evidence shows that the foods we eat weigh heavily in the war against cancer.

By Elizabeth Heubeck, MA
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

As researchers continue to wage war against cancer, many have begun to focus on what could be the most promising ammunition to date: diet.

"The easiest, least-expensive way to reduce your risk for cancer is just by eating a healthy diet," says Rachael Stolzenberg-Solomon, PhD, MPH, RD, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute.

When it comes to a diet rich in cancer-fighting substances, most experts agree that it should consist of a predominantly plant-based diet. "If you have two-thirds of plant food on your plate, that seems to be enough to avoid excessive amounts of food high in saturated fat," says Karen Collins, RD, nutritional advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research.

That seemingly simple advice could mean a drastic change in diet for many people.

"People who are thinking that this is like a diet, and are trying to choke this stuff down, it's never going to last," Collins tells WebMD. "You're looking at creating something for a lifetime. If it takes you awhile, but each month or so you enjoy [one more vegetable], then that's great," Collins.

You may want to start with some of the following food substances, all of which show promise as cancer-fighting agents.

Folate-Rich Foods

This B-complex vitamin can be found in many 'good for you' foods. Plus, manufacturers of cereals, pastas, and breads often fortify their products with folate.

How It Works

"The thought is that when someone has low levels of folate, it's more likely for mutations in DNA to occur," Stolzenberg-Solomon says. Conversely, adequate levels of folate protect against such mutations.

Cancer-Fighting Abilities

In a large-scale study, researchers evaluated the effects of folate on more than 27,000 male smokers between ages 50 and 69. Men who consumed at least the recommended daily allowance of folate -- about 400 micrograms -- cut by half their risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

How to Get It

Starting with breakfast, a glass of orange juice is high in folate; so are most cereals (check the box to see how much). For lunch, try a hearty salad with either spinach or romaine leaves. Top it with dried beans or peas for an extra boost. Snack on a handful of peanuts or an orange. At dinner, choose asparagus or Brussels sprouts as your vegetable.

Vitamin D

This fat-soluble vitamin which helps absorb calcium to build strong teeth and bones may also build protection against cancer.

How It Works

Researchers suggest that vitamin D curbs the growth of cancerous cells.

Cancer-Fighting Abilities:

A report presented at the latest meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) showed a link between increased vitamin D intake and reduced breast cancer risk. It found vitamin D to lower the risk of developing breast cancer by up to 50%.

Vitamin D may also improve survival rates among lung cancer patients, according to a Harvard study reported in 2005. Patients who received surgery for lung cancer in the summer, when vitamin D exposure from sunshine is greatest, and had the highest intake of vitamin D, reported a 56% five-year survival rate. Patients with low vitamin D intakes and winter surgeries had only a 23% survival rate.

How to Get It

In light of these recent findings, many researchers consider the current RDA of 400 international units (IU) too low. William G. Nelson, MD, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., suggests that the RDA recommendations for vitamin D be increased to 1,000 IU for both men and women. "Higher amounts may eventually prove better, but for now that amount is likely to be safe and have a protective effect," he tells WebMD.

While vitamin D is often associated with milk, high concentrations also can be found in these seafood choices: cod, shrimp, and Chinook salmon. Eggs are another good source. And don't forget sunshine. In just 10 minutes, you can soak up as much as 5,000 IU of vitamin D if you expose 40% of your body to the sun, without sunscreen.

Tea

If you enjoy sipping tea, you'll be happy to know that it appears promising against some forms of cancer.

How It Works

Like many plant-based foods, tea contains flavonoids, known for their antioxidant effects. One flavonoid in particular, kaempferol, has shown protective effects against cancer.

Cancer-Fighting Abilities: