Can Cruciferous Veggies Prevent Cancer? Here's What Our Dietitian Says



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Turns out, a serving of broccoli a day might actually keep the doctor away.

We’ve all heard the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, but a better idea might be eating some broccoli with that apple! There’s compelling research to suggest that eating cruciferous vegetables most days may reduce risk of certain cancers, thanks to compounds only found in those veggies.

What Are Cruciferous Vegetables, and Why Are They Special?

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The name “cruciferous” comes from the cross-shaped pattern that each vegetable’s flowers bloom. Broccoli, cabbage, kale, and cauliflower are cruciferous veggies you’re probably already familiar with, but there are also over twenty others that can usually be found in most grocery stores. While all vegetables are rich in their own assortment of nutrients and disease-fighting compounds, cruciferous vegetable are unique from other produce in that they also contain sulfur-based compounds called glucosinolates.

Glucosinolates are responsible for the slight odor when cooking broccoli or the bitter taste in turnip greens, but they also form biologically active compounds when broken down during digestion or cooking. These compounds (isothiocyanates and indoles are two) are associated with a reduced risk of cancer, as well as other diseases. In fact, researchers have been studying their effects for over 60 years, and several of them made the National Cancer Institute's list of the 40 most promising cancer-preventing agents.

Studies have also demonstrated that those broken-down compounds from glucosinolates have the potential to prevent the mutation of healthy cells into cancer cells; inhibit enzymes needed for the growth and metastasis of cancer cells; kill both benign and malignant cancer cells; detoxify or inactivate carcinogens that enter the body; provide anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral effects to reduce initiation of cancer cell; and alter hormone metabolism to decrease risk of hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast cancer.

Cruciferous Vegetables and Cancer

It's hard to prove that any food group (like cruciferous vegetables) has a role in cancer prevention, and here’s why: A clinical study would consist of subjects eating broccoli and Brussels sprouts for years, waiting to see when—or if—they get cancer during their lifespan. Not only would this take years, but other lifestyle factors like omega-3 consumption and physical activity would have to be ruled out as impacting the outcomes too, making the whole process of “proving” close to impossible.

Instead, researchers are forced to look for associations in a lab setting or within large population studies which means that the precise relationship between cruciferous vegetables and cancer is not clear. However, research suggests some pretty strong associations between cruciferous intake and cancer. In fact, most researchers agree that a higher intake of cruciferous vegetables is associated with a decreased cancer risk, with the strongest connections seen between cruciferous vegetables and lung cancer (in non-smokers) and colorectal cancer.

While genetics appear to play a role in the level of protection the compounds may offer each person, eating more cruciferous veggies can possibly reduce your risk for breast, stomach, prostate, and bladder cancers. The impact of these vegetables is also being studied in relation to brain-deteriorating diseases, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other inflammatory-related diseases.

How Much Should You Eat?

The Dietary Guidelines advise adults to eat between 2 to 2 ½ cups of vegetables daily and to consume a variety of vegetables from the five subgroups over a week. Cruciferous vegetables are categorized in either the “dark green” or “other vegetable” subgroup, but there’s no specific amount set for cruciferous vegetable intake. However, several of the cancer-related research studies suggest getting at least 5 servings in per week, or even better, a daily cruciferous vegetable serving.

The bottom line? Consume adequate fruit and vegetable intake each day for overall disease prevention. If you can make sure one of those daily servings is a cruciferous vegetable, then you might even reap additional health benefits—including extra cancer protection.


Anti-Cancer Foods: Go Cruciferous

There is no doubt that eating lots of fruits and vegetables, along with berries, nuts, seeds, etc. is healthy, but not all of them are equally protective against cancer. There is one family that is especially protective: the cruciferous (cabbage-family) vegetables.

What is so special about cruciferous vegetables

I first learned about this in our new book: Super Immunity: The Essential Nutrition Guide for Boosting Your Body’s Defenses to Live Longer, Stronger, and Disease Free written by Joel Fuhrman. In one of his newsletter he says:

“Cruciferous vegetables contain glucosinolates and in a different area of the cell, an enzyme called myrosinase. When we blend, chop or chew these vegetables, we break up the plant cells, allowing myrosinase to come into contact with glucosinolates, initiating a chemical reaction that produces isothiocyanates (ITCs) – powerful anti-cancer compounds. ITCs have been shown to detoxify and remove carcinogens, kill cancer cells, and prevent tumors from growing.

Observational studies have shown that eating ITC-rich cruciferous vegetables protects against cancer – here are a few examples:

Twenty-eight servings of vegetables per week decreased prostate cancer risk by 33%, but just 3 servings of cruciferous vegetables per week decreased prostate cancer risk by 41%.
One or more servings of cabbage per week reduced risk of pancreatic cancer by 38%.
One serving per day of cruciferous vegetables reduced the risk of breast cancer by over 50%.”

What are the cruciferous vegetables

We have all heard that some exotic fruits can help against cancer. The latest I heard is that Sour Sop or the fruit from the graviola tree is a miraculous natural cancer cell killer. This is great! But in my area there aren’t any graviola trees growing. Cruciferous vegetables, however, grow everywhere.

We also know cruciferous vegetables as winter vegetables, because they are frost hardy. In warmer climates people grow them in the winter, and in very cold areas they can be grown in the summer. So we all can grow them, have them, eat them!

Here is a list of cruciferous vegetables:

  • arugula
  • bok choy
  • broccoli
  • broccoli rabe
  • brocollina
  • brussels sprouts
  • cabbage
  • cauliflower
  • collards
  • horseradish
  • kale
  • kohlrabi
  • mustard greens
  • radish
  • red cabbage
  • rutabaga
  • turnips
  • turnip greens
  • watercress

How to get the most out of Cruciferous vegetables

We should eat cruciferous (cabbage-family) vegetables every day. “Don’t forget: chopping, chewing, blending, or juicing cruciferous vegetables is necessary to produce the anti-cancer ITCs.” says Dr Fuhrman.

The enzyme that is needed to create the anti cancer component, is destroyed by cooking. It also is not present in frozen cruciferious vegetables because they are blanched prior to be frozen. A lot of cruciferous vegetables like arugula, kale, kohlrabi and even cabbage are very tasty raw, others we prefer eating cooked.

Dr. Greger suggests two methods:

Pre-chop cruciferous (cabbage-family) vegetables about an hour prior to cooking them. The powerful anti-cancer compounds will be produced for maximum health benefits.

Or, adding enzymes in the form of even a pinch of mustard powder, or row cruciferous (cabbage-family) vegetables to cooked cruciferous vegetables can offer anti-cancer sulforaphane levels comparable to raw.

Here more information on this:

In our blog post growing food – cabbage, we write all about growing cabbage, check it out.

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30 Cancer-Fighting Foods That Reduce Your Disease Risk, According to Science

Eating a fiber-rich, brightly-colored diet does wonders for your body.

You might already suspect that no single food will for sure protect you from cancer. But loading up on the right foods more often just might lower your odds. &ldquoWe know that there&rsquos a close relationship between diet and cancer risk,&rdquo says Soma Mandal, M.D., an internist at Summit Medical Group of New Jersey.

What seems to be the most preventative? In general, you can count on plant foods, especially those that are high in fiber or brightly colored (a sign of lots of antioxidants), Dr. Mandal notes. (Processed meat and alcohol, on the other hand, have the potential do to the most harm.) And even within that framework, certain picks might be particularly potent. Some foods contain compounds that seem to work overtime at helping to stave off cell damage and inflammation, both of which can raise cancer risk. Here are 30 such foods that are worth eating more of.


Care and Treatment

There are many nutrition and lifestyle choices women can make every day to increase their protection from breast cancer.

Step 1. Healthy weight

Being overweight is a strong risk factor for breast cancer and any weight gain beyond the age of 18, even a 10% weight gain can strongly increase the chances of breast cancer as well as a cancer recurrence. (That’s only 15 pounds in a 150 lb woman.)

It is important to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight through daily exercise and a low fat plant-based diet.

According to the National Cancer Institute, exercising for four or more hours a week may also decrease hormone levels and help lower breast cancer risk.

Step 2. Eat a plant-based diet

Plant foods are rich sources of fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals which have been shown to decrease the risk of cancer and protect the body from other chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Choose whole grains and legumes as well as at least 6-9 servings from a variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables daily.

  • 1 serving = 1 cup leafy greens
  • ½ cup raw chopped vegetables
  • ½ cup fruit (or the size of a tennis ball)
  • 6oz 100% fruit or vegetable juice
  • ¼ cup dried fruit

Check out our recipe gallery for recipes containing foods known to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Step 3. Limit dietary fats

Some studies suggest additional benefit from limiting dietary fats in the diet, such as:

  • Butter
  • Full-fat dairy
  • Poultry skin
  • Fatty meats
  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Some margarines

Instead, include healthful fats:

  • Olive oil
  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Ground flaxseeds
  • Fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and arctic char)

Step 4. Soy

Soy is an excellent source of protein, fiber, B Vitamins, iron, calcium and isoflavones which can possibly help bind estrogen and may decrease the risk of hormone related cancers such as breast and prostate. Soy may also protect bones.

*Recent studies including data from the Women’s Healthy Eating and Living (WHEL) study have confirmed that soy consumption (up to 3 servings per day) from whole foods such as soy beans, tofu, and soy milk for any breast cancer type is probably safe. Concerns about soy and breast cancer stemmed from animal studies in which high dose isoflavone levels were used. Soy supplements and concentrates such as soy protein powder, soy protein isolates, genistein and daidzein should be avoided until more is known.

Step 5: Green tea

This beverage has strong anticancer properties from catechins, a flavonoid. Aim for 1-4 cups daily.

Step 6. Alcohol

Alcohol is a strong risk factor for many cancers, including breast cancer. Despite the benefits of resveratrol, a phytochemical in red wine and grapes, experts recommend avoiding alcohol as there appears to be no safe level for prevention of cancer.

As a survivor, it is recommended to limit your alcohol to no more than 2 servings per week (if at all). One serving of alcohol is defined as: 5oz glass of red wine, 12oz of beer, or 1 ½ oz of liquor.

Step 7. Bone health and vitamin D

It's important for women of all ages to consume adequate amounts of calcium and Vitamin D to maintain bone health and this may be even more crucial for postmenopausal women due to their increased risk of osteoporosis. Vitamin D has promising health benefits alone.

Healthy levels of these nutrients can be achieved by:

  • Consuming low-fat dairy products, fortified soymilk, oily fish (3.5 oz salmon can contain 300-500 IU Vitamin D alone!), and eggs
  • Receiving 10-15 minutes of direct sunlight daily in addition to a calcium supplement of 1000-1200mg (broken into two doses) with up to 2,000 IUs total of Vitamin D3 daily. Take these together at your largest meals for increased absorption.

Because Vitamin D deficiency is common and may increase the risk of cancer you may want to ask your doctor to check your blood level where 35-40 ng/mL is considered an optimal level.

Step 8. Sugar and Cancer

Limit concentrated sweets, added sugar from processed foods, and sugary beverages as these foods provide calories, but few nutrients. A high intake of sugar can increase insulin levels as well as encourage weight gain, both possibly leading to cancer. Natural sugars found in fruit, vegetables, beans, whole grains, dairy and soymilk are the best sources of carbohydrates to fuel your body and should not be restricted unless specifically recommended by your healthcare team.


Cancer Food and Drink Myths

Food and beverage misconceptions about cancer can result in unnecessary anxiety and worry about your health. Common myths include the following.

Myth 1: Eating Sugar Will Cause Cancer to Grow

Your body is made up of healthy and cancer cells that convert sugar, or glucose, into energy. There haven't been any studies that show sugar consumption makes cancer worse. Nor have there been any studies showing sugar avoidance will eliminate or shrink your cancer.

Overeating does contribute to obesity and being overweight, which are risk factors for cancer. If you have bladder cancer, you should focus on fresh foods and not packaged ones that may be high in sugar. But the occasional treat will not impact your cancer.

Myth 2: Artificial Sweeteners Can Lead to Cancer

Artificial sweeteners are sugar-free substitutes you add to food to make it sweeter without added calories. Back in the '70s , studies showed cyclamate, an additive that has since been removed from the U.S. market, combined with saccharin led to bladder cancer in lab animals. Bladder cancer incidences in rats that received high saccharin doses also rose.

But this doesn't seem to occur with humans. Rats make sodium salts that contribute to the formation of tumors in their bladders, but mice, humans and monkeys don't do this, so consuming these compounds didn't cause bladder cancer in these cases.

Myth 3: Consuming an Alkaline Diet Fights Cancer

Cancer researchers have noted cancer cells survive better in acidic, or low-PH, environments than high-PH, or alkaline, environments. That led some to theorize an "alkaline diet" would make the body a less-hospitable host to cancer cells, but there is no scientific proof for this theory.


Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 4 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1/2 cup frozen baby lima beans
  • 1 (15 oz.) can no salt added black, Great Northern, or navy beans
  • 1 cup frozen mixed vegetables
  • 1/2 cup frozen tri-colored bell peppers
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano or thyme
  • Pinch of dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup frozen broccoli florets
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

The #1 Best Vegetable To Eat, According to a Dietitian

Broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts—oh my! These are just a few of the hearty veggies in a larger class of produce called cruciferous vegetables. As a dietitian, I advocate for eating a variety of vegetables. However, if I had to discriminate, the cruciferous vegetables would be my top choice for the best vegetable to eat! These veggies are loaded with nutrients, fiber, and cancer-fighting effects.

Cruciferous veggies are loaded with water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins. Namely, they are packed with vitamin C, A, E, and K. Vitamin C assists in collagen formation, keeping your hair, skin, and nails growing healthily. Fat-soluble vitamins A, E, K work together to support our immune system and promote anti-aging. Eat a variety of these veggies and they will keep you looking and feeling healthy for years to come. (Related: The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now)

Cruciferous vegetables are part of the Brassica family. This class of veggies is known for being high in fiber and plays a critical role in digestive health. If you find these veggies hard to digest because they are high in fiber, try cooking them instead of eating them raw. Members of the Brassica veggie family are known for containing detox-promoting enzymes. You can boost your body's natural ability to eliminate toxins as a result of including these powerhouses in your diet.

If you find yourself turning down the Brussels sprouts, maybe you haven't found a way to prepare them that you enjoy yet! Take a look at these savory recipes to find some inspiration.

Cruciferous veggies are also associated with cancer-fighting properties. These veggies contain glucosinolates which have been linked with decreased cancer risk by neutralizing cancer cells in the body. No wonder they are considered the best vegetable to eat!

Looking for more cancer-fighting foods? Look no further! Check out these 50 Cancer-Fighting Foods.


1 of 10

Broccoli

All cruciferous veggies (think cauliflower, cabbage, kale) contain cancer-fighting properties, but broccoli is the only one with a sizable amount of sulforaphane, a particularly potent compound that boosts the body's protective enzymes and flushes out cancer-causing chemicals, says Jed Fahey, ScD. A recent University of Michigan study on mice found that sulforaphane also targets cancer stem cells&mdashthose that aid in tumor growth.

Helps fight: breast, liver, lung, prostate, skin, stomach, and bladder cancers

Your Rx: The more broccoli, the better, research suggests&mdashso add it wherever you can, from salads to omelets to the top of your pizza.


Is There a Downside to Eating Cruciferous Vegetables?

While these veggies sound so amazing, there are a couple of minor negative side-effects that may be a problem for some people.

Flatulence & Bloating

Because of the amount of fiber in these veggies, flatulence may be a problem. The fiber can ferment in the bowel and cause production of gas. This can be counteracted by cooking to help break down some of the fiber and make the veggies more digestible. Drinking more water after eating these vegetables also helps.

Potential Thyroid Problems

Raw cruciferous vegetables contain goitrogens that block the use of iodine in our bodies. This can lead to an enlarged thyroid gland and swollen neck. However, for the normal person, you would need to eat a lot of these vegetables to cause this. It would take approximately 10 cups of raw brussel sprouts in one day to cause this effect, for example. It is usually only a concern in people who are already deficient in iodine. This is rare in countries that use iodine-enriched table salt.

Allergy

Although uncommon, some people have a hypersensitivity to this family of vegetables. Those that suspect they may be allergic to crucifers should not eat them and talk to their doctor.

Interference with some medications

If you are on medications, especially blood thinners, be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist about eating cruciferous vegetables. These plants contain some powerful phytochemicals that can interact with some, not many, drugs.

In general, moderate amounts of crucifers are considered safe to eat.


Limit: saturated and trans fats

Shutterstock

Examples: Processed, sugary snacks, processed meats, margarine

A study that appeared in the journal Oncotarget connected high dietary fat intake to ovarian cancer. Specifically, the worst fats to consume are saturated fats and trans fats. These fats are most commonly found in foods that are heavily processed or fried—which don't coincide with a healthy, mostly plant-based diet.

The bottom line: What goes along with a balanced diet is healthy lifestyle choices. "Maintaining a healthy weight (which also means exercise!) improves health and reduces risks of all sorts of diseases, including cancer, and including ovarian cancer," Dr. MacLaughlan David says.



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