Which Foods Can Prevent Heart Disease and Cancer?
Heart disease is our number one killer. But most would agree that cancer is the disease that strikes fear in most people’s hearts. Heart disease is usually due to atherosclerosis, an inflammatory condition that affects the lining of blood vessels. To a great extent, it’s influenced by factors under your own control. Engaging in regular exercise, avoiding smoking, and eating a healthful, plant-based diet are behaviors that can reduce your risk of developing atherosclerosis. Ditto cancer.
Of course, cancer is not a single disease. It is many diseases, affecting any number of tissues, organs and organ systems. We’re still learning about risk factors for cancer, and it’s unclear to what extent we can modify risk by altering behavior. But we do know that certain lifestyle patterns are more likely to discourage the development of cancer. Exercise decreases the chance that you will be diagnosed with certain cancers, for instance. Eating a plant-based diet rich in dietary fiber is linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer, for example. But aside from avoiding obvious risk factors—smoking, inactivity, exposure to toxins or radiation, or high consumption of processed meats and fried foods—what foods can you eat that may help prevent cancer?
Not surprisingly, numerous compounds have been identified that appear to possess anti-cancer activities. Most of them are found in plant foods. Yesterday, I talked about green tea. It contains a potent antioxidant polyphenol compound, EGCG, with demonstrated anti-cancer activity. Other chemicals in the polyphenol class can be found in numerous other plant foods. They include resveratrol in grapes and peanuts, curcumin in the spice, turmeric, and quercetin in foods such as onions and apples. All of these compounds are believed to exert direct or indirect anti-cancer activity in the body.
It’s interesting to note that many of the dietary compounds that scientists have identified that help fight cancer are chemicals dubbed flavonoids, meaning that they are responsible for some of the flavor in our favorite foods. Pigment compounds, which give plant foods their vibrant colors, are also very often potent anticancer chemicals. For that reason, bright (natural) color is a reliable indicator that a given food is probably beneficial and capable of helping fight cancer. Think blueberries, blackberries, red cherries, yellow peppers and orange carrots. They all get their color from beneficial pigment compounds.
Queen BL1, Tollefsbol TO. Polyphenols and aging. Curr Aging Sci. 2010 Feb;3(1):34-42.