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Carbs will be out, fats will be in, if a ketogenic diet proves to be a tool in the battle to fight cancer.
A ketogenic diet starves cancer cells of glucose, thereby stunting the disease’s growth and compelling the body to burn fats, which trigger the production of compounds called ketones that, scientists hypothesize, cancer cells can’t use for fuel. The effectiveness of the diet, which should only be used in consultation with a doctor, is in the pilot-study phase of human research.
The diet may work for other reasons: Like a campfire burning wood, cells burning glucose for energy undergo incomplete combustion, thus creating free radicals of oxygen that can damage DNA. In addition, scientists are increasingly studying the insulin the pancreas produces in response to glucose. It appears to trigger a cascade of actions that may stimulate cancer’s growth. Close to a century ago, German scientist Otto Warburg first suggested that glucose may play a role and in 1931 won a Nobel Prize for identifying cancer as a sugar feeder.
Recently, two American scientists collected a smaller prize for their pilot study. Dr. Eugene Fine, a physician and professor at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., and his colleague, Richard Feinman, professor of cell biology at State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center took 10 patients with advanced cancers who had failed or refused standard chemotherapy and put them on ketogenic diets for 28 days, then looked at tumors on PET scans. Patients with the least ketosis (which they defined as least insulin inhibition) showed progressive disease whereas higher levels of ketosis were accompanied by stable disease or partial remission, they reported.
“We think what’s important is that we may have opened a door, long overdue, to studying dietary change as a component of cancer therapy,” Fine said, cautioning against reading too much into a small study.
Ultimately these scientists hope to identify which cancers might best respond to carbohydrate restriction. “For sure, they all won’t,” Fine said. The common slow-growing form of prostate cancer, he said, feeds on fats as well as glucose and glutamate, a protein that’s been implicated in a few cancers. “Even within a single individual with a primary cancer and metastases, the cancer’s behavior … can vary from one cell to the next.”
Ketogenic diet research takes off
Ketogenic diets are actually ancient. That’s how cave dwellers ate, Fine explained, and today’s paleo movement and the similar Atkins approach are bringing them back.
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Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore has been using forms of a ketogenic diet since the 1920s to control epileptic seizures.
But in the cancer field, clinical trials of ketogenic diets are just sprouting up. Among the scientists touting the “fat as fuel” approach is Dr. Craig Thompson, the president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Thompson founded a private company that’s helping develop drugs to lower glucose and glutamine.
In his recent book, Boston College biology professor Thomas Seyfried takes the ketogenic diet one big step further. He advocates that patients fast periodically. There’s nothing more powerful than calorie restriction in reducing a tumor’s ability to grow blood vessels and spread, he said.
The diet he proposes includes 70% of calories from fat, 12% to 15% from protein, and the rest from carbs. How low carb is that? According to Fine, you need to eat 50 grams of carbs or less a day to get your body into a state of ketosis, where it produces ketones as a result of utilizing fat as its main energy source. The typical U.S. diet provides 250 to 400 grams daily.
Do the types of fat matter? Like the answers to most questions, it depends on whom you ask. Many versions of the ketogenic diet may include bacon and butter, albeit not on toast, but why consume saturated animal fats that are known to promote inflammation and disease? Unsaturated fats, such as those found in avocado and nuts, are good for your heart and may help control insulin. Omega 3 fats, abundant in fatty fish and flaxseed, fight inflammation.
And coconut fats contain medium-chain triglycerides, a type of fat that promotes the production of ketones. How about low-calorie vegetables immersed in high-fat coconut milk? One day that might be just what the doctor orders.
Top photo: A ketogenic diet of fats such as avocados, nuts and seeds is the focus of cancer research. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller
“So where’s your sushi from?” I asked politely, still sweating the effects of Fukushima on fish from the Pacific Ocean.
“From Japan,” said the waiter.
Well, duh, what should I have expected? We were in a Japanese restaurant.
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For more than a year now, scientists studying the effects of the March 2011 deadly earthquake and tsunami that triggered the disastrous breakdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have suspected that the plant may still be leaking. Levels of radioactivity in the waters and fish around the plant have not been declining, as would be expected. Recently, amid reports of surging radiation levels, Japan finally owned up: The plant has probably been leaking for the past two years, acknowledged Japan’s chief nuclear regulator.
So should we, sitting comfortably across the Pacific, be worried about consuming Pacific fish?
Nicholas Fisher, a State University of New York at Stony Brook professor, has been studying radioactivity and metals in marine life for more than three decades. He’s part of the research team examining Fukushima’s effects on the seas.
Last year he reported small amounts of Fukushima’s cesium in Pacific bluefin tuna caught off California’s coast in summer 2011. Those tuna had spent their early days during that momentous spring off Japan’s Pacific shores, then migrated across the ocean, as some species do.
Last month he published another study saying the amounts of cesium are nothing to worry about. “The biological effects of any contaminant are generally dependent on the dose received,” he wrote. And the dosages of cesium in those 2011 tuna and attendant risks are extremely low, he said — too low to detect any damage and declining in fish caught in 2012. In fact, he’s more concerned about mercury in tuna than radioactivity.
Fisher compares the dosage of cesium you’d get from eating a 200-gram portion of that tuna to the naturally occurring radioactive potassium in one banana: The banana would give you a dose 20 times higher. When’s the last time you had a CT scan? That dosage is at least 1,000 times more — depending on the scan, up to 10,000 times more — than the amount an average American seafood consumer would get eating that contaminated tuna for an entire year, he said.
But what about the fish being exported from Japan?
Seafood from Japan monitored
To its credit, Japan lowered its levels of acceptable cesium in the wake of the disaster from 500 to 100 becquerels per kilogram. The U.S. limit is 1,200 becquerels per kilogram, and the Canadian limit is 1,000 becquerels per kilogram. Japan has been testing fish and posting results on the Internet. Some clear patterns are emerging:
– Some freshwater fish (landlocked salmon, for example) have higher levels of cesium, which is not surprising. Cesium mimics sodium and potassium. both of which are abundant and naturally occurring in the sea, meaning they would displace cesium uptake.
– And some of the ocean’s bottom feeders are showing levels above limits, which again is not surprising. Contaminants are getting trapped in sediments near the Fukushima nuclear plant, experts say, providing a continuous source of food for marine life that feed along the bottom near the shoreline.
The fish that feed in this area include many familiar species: cod, haddock, grouper, bass, halibut, flounder, sole, snapper, shellfish, monkfish, turbot, sturgeon, shark, eel and greenling, which was once a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. Last February, a greenling caught near the plant registered the highest level of contamination yet, which is 7,400 times the amount of radioactive cesium that Japan deems acceptable.
Meanwhile, Japan is working to keep contaminated fish off the market. Immediately after the incident, its fishermen voluntarily agreed to a ban on most commercial fishing off Fukushima prefecture. (The ban did not include fishing for skipjack tuna and some mackerel, all caught far enough offshore that it didn’t seem to worry the decision makers. They’ve been inspecting samples of those species, they say.)
Japan uses a testing program
Today, a few of those restrictions have been lifted. You can now buy Fukushima octopus and snow crab, for example. And the country relies on a testing program that’s managed by the prefectures and depends on the fisherman’s voluntary compliance. The prefectures regularly test samples for cesium, which builds up in muscle (and irregularly test for strontium, which accumulates in bone), at least weekly, often daily, explained a spokesman for Japan’s embassy in Canada. If a fish contains cesium above limits, the fisherman is responsible for keeping that species off the market. That responsibility means they must not sell any fish of that species in that day’s catch.
If a species from a particular area continues to show contamination, the central government can step in and ban fishing for that species in that area of the prefecture, as it has done in several instances. Then, if testing over multiple places within that area shows results consistently below limits, the feds can lift the ban.
Take Japan’s Pacific cod. Today, it’s banned in Fukushima and neighboring Ibaraki prefecture but can still be snagged elsewhere and sold. At one point, it was prohibited in three other prefectures because its contamination levels were above limits, but the ban’s no longer in force. Do fish know prefectural boundaries?
Global efforts to track contamination
In North America, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its Canadian counterparts no longer single out imports from Japan for inspection like they did after the incident but they do still monitor radiation in all foods, spokespeople said. The FDA has also issued an order authorizing agents to seize certain foods from certain prefectures that Japan’s central government has already banned from exporting due to high contamination levels. Recently, the American Medical Assn. passed a resolution urging the FDA to monitor seafood carefully, and a group of physician organizations instrumental in that resolution, led by the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Erica Frank, are calling on U.S. and Canadian authorities to be vigilant.
So could Pacific cod that had been feeding in those contaminated sediments make it to your faraway platter? Possibly, assuming it swam a few miles from Fukushima and through a few loopholes. If you indulged on a little sushi, would there be enough cesium to do harm?
Fisher’s now starting to study the levels of radioactivity in those coastal bottom feeders along with the possibility of radiation in other migratory species.
Top photo: Raw tuna. Credit: Holly Botner
Although some Buddhists may swear off onions and garlic because they allegedly arouse both anger and libido, these aromatics have powerful nourishing properties. Experts say you can enhance the many health-promoting and cancer-fighting effects of onions and garlic by adopting certain culinary habits. Are you ready to embrace the almighty bulbs?
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I’ve been involved in a steamy love affair with onions ever since a Thai waitress admired my father’s long, droopy earlobes, a sure sign of longevity in her culture. Other than the hunks of salami he used to beg for at bedtime, what food do I most often associate with my dad? Why, onions, of course!
But what does real science have to say about onions and their garlic cousins? Like leeks, chives and scallions, the other “forbidden spices” of certain Buddhists and Hindus, onions and garlic are members of the allium family of vegetables, so named because they contain the enzyme allinase, which converts the sulfur-containing compound alliin to allicin, its active form.
Alliums have long been prized for their ability to lower cholesterol, blood sugar and pressure, to thin the blood and to attack microbes. Recent research shows they fight cancer, too.
Studies in human populations “suggest that allium vegetable intake reduces the risk of cancer,” writes Italian researcher Carlotta Galeone, “and laboratory investigations have provided convincing evidence that selected substances contained in garlic and other allium vegetables inhibit a variety of chemically induced tumours in animals,” including cancers of the breast, endometrium, colon and digestive tract.
The “selected substances” include those stinky, pungent, tear-inducing molecules of sulfur.
Imagine an insect biting into an allium’s leaf and getting sprayed. “Plant scientists believe that a plant’s chemical system develops as an evolutionary defense against pests,” said Irwin Goldman, an onion expert and professor at the University of Wisconsin. Alliums originated in central Asia, just north of Afghanistan — a rough neck of the woods, by any measure.
In addition to more than 50 variations on sulfur, onions have another trait going for them: They contain flavonoids, compounds that give plants color and contribute to a host of healthy benefits. Quercetin, which acts as an anti-inflammatory, antihistamine and antioxidant, is the most exalted. It’s also has been shown to inhibit estrogen.
Garlic breath and onion sense: Top 5 practices for using them
To maximize the health benefits of onions and garlic, Goldman said, you must adopt some simple culinary habits:
Tip 1: Attack alliums first, as soon as you get to the kitchen.
By cutting onions and garlic, you break their cell walls, thus releasing those allinase enzymes. To develop the full complement of sulfur compounds, you have to let the cut vegetables sit for a while so that the enzymes have time to go to work, Goldman said.
How long is that? Goldman suggested 30 minutes for onions while garlic researcher Suhasini Modem suggested about half that time for cloves of garlic. And sulfur expert Eric Block said shorter times may suffice. In other words, nobody knows for sure, so hedge your bets by choosing the least risky course of action.
You could even cut your onions and garlic far in advance, Modem said, as long as you let them sit on the counter long enough, then refrigerate them to keep the sulfurs stable. Chopped garlic should last six to eight hours on the counter, she said, and two to three days in a cold fridge.
Tip 2: Don’t cut alliums too finely.
If you do, the enzymes will undergo a short-lived reaction and quickly evaporate, Block said. (Crucifers cut too finely react the same way.) But what if you desire a subtle mince? My solution is to keep the cut chunky at first, then cut the vegetables even more just before you’re planning to consume them.
Tip 3: Choose small red and yellow onions grown in colder climates and peel them gently.
Pity the poor Vidalia. She may be southern and mellow, which could be attractive qualities in a mate, but the harsh northern varieties of onions grown in latitudes above 40 degrees are higher in healthy sulfurs, Goldman said. Red and yellow onions, including the small yellow-skinned shallots, also contain more flavonoids than other varieties while white onions appear to have the least.
Quercetin and other flavonoids concentrate in the outer layers of onions, so peel them slightly and throw the skins into soup stock or compost. Smaller onions are simply better value. Why pay for those hunks of flavonoid-free interiors?
Tip 4: Eat alliums raw or slightly cooked.
In the case of garlic, Modem found that cooking it — even a quick saute for two minutes — destroyed its ability to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Other researchers, however, have found that cooking in the microwave for 60 seconds or even 45 minutes in the oven only partially destroyed garlic’s anti-cancer properties as long as it had time to percolate beforehand. Again, hedge your bets.
Sulfur compounds in all alliums do get destroyed by cooking, Goldman said, but the flavonoids in onions may get enhanced with slight exposure to heat. For that reason, he recommends raw or quickly sautéed onions, cooked for four to five minutes, max.
Tip 5: Combine alliums with alliums and other healthy plant foods.
Even if you insist on cooking your alliums, you can increase their cancer-fighting qualities by throwing in some raw garlic, onions or their juices at the end. Combining garlic with olive oil, said Modem, may also add some anti-cancer synergy. Some studies also suggest you can get a similar boost by combining garlic with tomatoes or with selenium. And if you’re really angling to hedge your bets, you could always snort those piercing fumes. Funny you should bring that up, Goldman said. High on his bucket list is a study of people who work in onion factories–and cry “sulfur” every day.
Green Beans With Brazil Nut-Garlic Paste
This recipe combines raw garlic with Brazil nuts, one of the few food sources of cancer-fighting selenium. Eaten together, the two may pack an even powerful anti-cancer punch.
2 cloves garlic, smashed and allowed to sit 15 minutes before using
5 Brazil nuts
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 large handfuls raw green beans
Salt to taste
1. Grind garlic and nuts to make a paste.
2. Whisk in lemon juice.
3. Using a steamer and very little water, steam the green beans for a couple of minutes until bright green, then combine with paste.
Top photo: Green beans with Brazil nut-garlic paste. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller
“One of the most significant medical discoveries of the 21st century is that inflammation is the common thread connecting chronic diseases,” writes Dr. Mark Hyman, author of several books on health and wellness. The conditions he’s talking about include diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even cancer, all driven by inflammatory foods in your diet. But the good news is there are lots of foods to decrease inflammation, too.
Cut your finger, and observe what happens: redness, swelling, thumping pain. That’s the process of inflammation — the immune system rushing in, sending growth signals to the skin and blood vessels to help repair damaged tissues. Now imagine you have a chronic wound that just won’t heal. ”It’s like wild fire out of control,” Dr. William Li told USA Today, describing the inflammatory process that drives the proliferation of cancerous cells.
When the immune system detects cancer, it produces inflammatory molecules to help put out the fire. But tumor cells are sneaky. They mask themselves to keep the immune system from prevailing and feed off the growth signals that inflammation creates. What’s more, cancer cells initiate inflammation on their own, secreting inflammatory chemicals that cause more proliferation and growth, and the cascade continues. The cancer cells increase exponentially, refusing to die like normal cells, producing masses called tumors that generate blood vessels on their own so they can nourish themselves, grow bigger and spread.
Fat cells, too, secrete inflammatory chemicals, underscoring the link between obesity and chronic disease.
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So what causes chronic inflammation?
Hyman blames the usual culprits, including lack of exercise, stress, overeating, refined carbs, processed foods, sugars and artificial sweeteners, imbalances in gut bacteria, insufficient fiber, dairy, gluten and bad fats.
Unlike proteins, which our body breaks down into amino acids, the fats we eat get incorporated directly into our cell membranes, said Jeanne Wallace, a Ph.D. in nutrition who has reviewed the thousands of studies on diet and cancer. In a multi-step process, those fats then signal our cells to secrete chemicals that are either inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. The good fats — the ones that get converted into prostaglandin E3s and signal cells to reduce inflammation — include omega 3 fatty acids, she explained, found in abundance in wild, fatty fish, in animals raised on pastures and in a few plant foods, including flax, chia and walnuts to some degree.
The bad guys are certain omega 6 fatty acids from commercially-raised animals and trans fats from fried and processed foods, including oils that are hardened via the process of hydrogenation and turned into shortening, into some margarines and sometimes into commercial nut butters. These fats get converted into prostaglandin E2s and other chemicals that promote inflammation.
The bad guys, however, can also include plant sources high in omega 6 fatty acids– beans, grains, nuts, seeds and especially their oils, Wallace said.
The problem here is that fat conversion can go either way, she said. The fat may be converted into healthy or unhealthy prostaglandins, depending on your insulin levels and other factors in your body, and we have very little control over the process. Wallace, who counsels cancer patients on diet and supplements, recommends eating these whole plant foods in moderation and avoiding most plant oils, which contain an overabundance of omega 6s. Olive oil is her oil of choice because of the abundance of omega 9 fatty acids, neutral in their effects on inflammation, along with other compounds that impede it.
Through her extensive research, Wallace has identified these foods to fight inflammation.
Top foods to decrease inflammation:
10 Apples and apple cider. Wallace, however, advises her clients with blood sugar issues to avoid fruit juice because of the sugars and to eat apples along with a little protein or fat, which will slow down the sugars’ absorption.
9 Brightly colored berries. These are also on Wallace’s top 10 list of foods that regulate blood sugar.
8 Olive oil. Buy cold-pressed, extra virgin oil in dark bottles, Wallace advised. And when you cook with it, use a low temperature and don’t let it smoke.
7 Hot peppers. They’re high in capsaicin, a potent compound that generates heat and inhibits inflammation.
6 Onions. Have you ever known a vegetable so sweet yet so mighty? According to onion experts, the best ones are the red and yellow-skinned varieties grown in northern soils. Peel them gently, then cut them and then let them sit for a half hour to develop the full complement of healthy compounds.
5 Grass-fed, grass-finished (often called pastured) organic meat, dairy and eggs. Visit the Eat Wild website to find good local sources of these products. And when in doubt, ask farmers what they feed their animals to increase omega 3s. You don’t want “grain-fed,” which increases omega 6s.
4 Leafy green vegetables, especially spinach. Wash these vegetables well even if the package says they’ve been pre-washed because the threat of the E. coli contamination is real. Cook spinach to help you absorb its minerals.
3 Green tea. Look for fresh-smelling, green leaves, especially gyokuros and senchas
2 Wild, fatty, cold-water fish Choose fish that are small and eat low on the food chain, including anchovies, sardines, herring and wild salmon. Here’s a list of some good salmon choices, including canned salmon from BPA-free cans. Also, eat the fat, which contains the healthy omega 3s.
1 Culinary seasonings. Curry, ginger, garlic and parsley top the list of foods that fight inflammation. All herbs and spices are rich in antioxidants, Wallace said, which help protect fragile omega 3 oils from turning rancid when heated. Even more significant, they inhibit inflammation-promoting molecules (called nuclear factor kappa B) that cancer cells secrete. In fact, some scientists suggest that spice consumption might explain why cancer incidence is so much lower in India than in most Western countries, giving “the spice of life” its most significant spin yet.
Simple Spicy Salmon, With Ginger Juice and Garlic
My secret to moist, tasty salmon is a clay baking dish, which is available in most kitchen specialty stores. You have to soak it in cold water for half an hour before using it and then place it, along with the ingredients, in a cold oven. Trust me. I’ve cracked many a clay vessel.
4 cloves garlic, chopped, divided in half
3 heaping tablespoons grated ginger
4 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 large pieces of wild salmon
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1. Soak the pot in cold water for half an hour.
2. Prepare the sauce. Chop the garlic first. It needs to sit about 15 minutes before cooking to develop its host of cancer-fighting compounds. Grate the ginger, then squeeze the juice out of it into a mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice, salt, pepper and half the garlic and stir.
3. Place the fish in the clay pot and add the sauce. Sprinkle red pepper on top and then cover.
4. Place covered clay pot in a cold oven, then turn the oven to 350 F and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until fish is flaky. Add the remainder of the garlic at the end.
Top photo: Simple spicy salmon, with ginger juice and garlic. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller
Hear this, Congress: Scientists do make a difference!
Recently, researchers have begun turning their attention to a burning question in food science: Should you eat vegetables raw or cooked? The answers are evolving, and a lot more complex than a simple yes or no. It depends on what vegetable you’re talking about and how you cook it.
Cabbage, like other cruciferous vegetables, is teeming with cancer-preventive compounds, but you have to handle it tenderly to reap those special rewards. Food scientist and crucifer expert Dr. Paul Thornalley, of the University of Warwick in Great Britain, has some practical advice for capitalizing on cabbage.
Tip 1: Keep the touch gentle. Eat cabbage raw or lightly cooked.
Cooking cabbage (and other crucifers) at high temperatures for prolonged periods destroys the active enzyme myrosinase, needed to turn compounds called glucosinolates into others called isothiocyanates, which in turn are responsible for the cancer-preventive actions. Translation, please?
Cabbage rolls probably won’t turn the trick.
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Lab studies have shown that crucifers can prevent cells from being damaged by toxins, inhibit cancer cell proliferation and the inflammation that drives it, and suppress the growth of blood vessels that cancer cells make in order to spread. (That’s the process of angiogenesis.) Several studies have also shown reduced rates of certain cancers among people with diets high in crucifers.
When you boil cabbage leaves, however, the myrosinase is destroyed and the glucosinolates end up in the liquid, Thornalley said. To help preserve the enzymes, do a quick sauté or light steam instead. Even if the heat destroys some of them, bacteria in your gut will take over their role and transform glucosinolates into isothiocyanates to some degree. As for microwave cooking, to minimizeglucosinolate loss, keep the time, temp and amount of water you use low.
What about baking or braising or roasting crucifers? Thornalley hasn’t tested that yet, but said that very high temperatures — much higher than 212 F (100 C, the boiling point of water) — for prolonged periods will probably kill them off. In fact with all crucifers, if you’re aiming for the most cancer-preventive activity, raw is best, he said.
Tip 2: When you cut crucifers, make sure the pieces are fairly large.
They should be about half an inch (a centimeter) or larger for vegetable leaves such as cabbage and ⅕ teaspoon (a millileter) or larger for flowers such as broccoli. Using smaller cuts, Thornalley said, will destroy the enzyme’s ability to create the cascade of actions that produce cancer-fighting compounds.
Tip 3: Don’t let cut crucifers sit on the counter for more than two to three hours.
They will lose those magic compounds. Instead, keep cut cabbage and other crucifers in the fridge, where the compounds should last for several days, he said.
So if you’re not counting on cabbage rolls or finely-shredded coleslaw for your daily dose of cancer-fighting crucifers, what can you do with that head of cabbage instead? Here are some ideas (from my humble kitchen, not Thornalley’s lab):
• Raw chunky coleslaw – Cut in strips at least ½ inch thick. Dress with cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil and a little vinegar. Add raw scallions, cut on the diagonal, carrots and red peppers, julienned. It doesn’t seem to matter how small you cut the carrots, peppers and scallions. Top with caraway or cumin seeds, which may help avert the gas. And chew well, over and over, which, from my abundant experience, definitely aids in that department.
• Raw chunky cabbage soup — This can be any variety of healthy soup, with the cabbage added at the end so that it doesn’t actually cook. Cut the cabbage in ½-inch squares (or larger), which are easier to get into your mouth than long, thickish strips.
• Lightly sautéed cabbage – Sauté chunky strips briefly in olive oil on low to medium heat. (Don’t let the oil smoke because that turns it rancid.) Add spices, seeds, sauces, other quickly sautéed veggies. Wrap the mixture in a lettuce or steamed collard leaf, or serve up a moo shu platter.
• Lightly steamed cabbage – Use a steamer so that the cabbage doesn’t cook in the water and use as little water as possible. Cook quickly, then add some tasty seeds, herbs, sauce. And it can’t hurt to throw the cooking water back into the final dish.
• Sauerkraut – It’s simply raw cabbage that’s been fermented, meaning healthy bacteria are produced, which increase the cancer-fighting properties. Look for local brands that haven’t been pasteurized (heated in order to destroy germs.) Or make your own. For a more potent anti-cancer recipe, add some turmeric to mustard and mix with the kraut. Or stir this turmeric concoction into the mustard. The black pepper enhances turmeric’s cancer-fighting actions; the cumin powder, its earthy flavor.
• Kimchi — This is fermented cabbage, Korean style. Find a local supplier who doesn’t use loads of sugar to counter the intensity, or make your own. And be forewarned: Korean red pepper powder can be explosive. Once again, a light touch prevails.
Simple Korean Kimchi
Adapted from a recipe by Danielle Levy, plant-based cook and Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN)
Here’s a quick way to make kimchi at home. For a whimsical touch, serve in glass tea cups.
For the vegetables:
1 medium to large Napa or Savoy cabbage, cut into bite-sized chunks
12 cups cold water
¼ cup salt
2 large cucumbers, cut in small half moons
5 scallions, minced
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup chopped chives
For the paste:
1½ cups water
¼ cup almond flour (ground almonds)
1 tablespoon coconut sugar or ½ tablespoon Xylitol made from birch, not corn, to sweeten (optional)
2 tablespoons Korean red pepper powder
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
1 stick lemongrass, minced (optional)
1. Let the cabbage soak in a large container of salted water for at least 4 hours. Then rinse it several times under cold running water, and pat it with a towel to remove the wetness.
2. Make the paste: Using a skillet, bring the water to a simmer and add the flour. Whisk over medium high heat for 3 minutes. Add the sweetener, and continue to simmer for another minute. Remove from heat and set aside.
3. Mix all the remaining paste ingredients in a food processor, then add the flour mixture.
4. Combine cabbage with cucumbers, scallions, chives and soy sauce. Add the paste. Put the mixture into the glass jar, and let it sit at least 24 hours. The longer it ferments, the better.
Should you ferment foods at room temperature or in the fridge? “You’ll get more significant microbial development” at room temp, fermentation guru Sandor Katz said. On the other hand, you might feel safer in the cold, especially if you live in hot climes.
Cabbage in the garden. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller
Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much fake cheese. And tonight? I’m sticking to my dietitian’s advice to shut down the digestive track by 7 p.m.-ish and calling my late lunch “lupper.”
But I’ve been known to cheat.
In fact, cheating is what I’m all about — cheating my body into a metabolic state that puts up its dukes to fight cancer, lest some imperfect genes win the battle. And I cheat on my plan every once in a while too, because perfection, as a rule, stinks. You see I’ve had cancer twice — a rare ovarian — and other than surgery, the doctors told me there was nothing they could do. The good news: It’s slow growing. The bad news: it’ll likely come back.
Devouring science, changing diet
So for seven years now, since the recurrence, I’ve been taking my health into my own hands, devouring the science and changing what I eat. And I’m still clean. Sure, I understand that association doesn’t prove cause. Maybe I’d still be cancer-free had I clung to my late-night rituals involving vanilla ice cream. But look at the upside: I feel great, am rarely sick and have a powerful sense of control over my body. And the best part of adopting an anti-cancer approach to eating? Maybe I’m actually keeping cancer cells at bay.
The evidence for diet’s impact on cancer keeps getting stronger: 3 to 4 million cases of the disease per year could be prevented by changes in food consumption and exercise, according to an international team of scientists who study the many studies on how nutrition impacts cancer and the many genes that affect it.
How many existing cancerous cells could be stopped from growing, spreading and taking another life by changing our diet? That’s a rhetorical question, I realize, one there’s not yet enough evidence for scientists to answer. Nor may there ever be — at least not in our lifetimes. But they do know that certain dietary factors can cause cancer cells to proliferate. This just out: A review of the scientific literature published this summer identifies 40-plus elements in plants that activate metastasis-suppressing genes.
Beating cancer: Foods to avoid
The bottom line is that we should all be eschewing red and processed meat and emphasizing a diet based on non-starchy plants, says that esteemed panel of scientists, who, through the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research, have published more than a thousand pages of reports.
From what they and others tell us, however, it’s much more complex than picking foods from the earth. When it comes to eating to beat cancer, some vegetables are better than others, for example; raw is often good, but not always; and you can overdose on many acceptable choices, including my Indonesian tempeh wraps and cannellini humus. We’re all different in terms of our genes, how our bodies metabolize food and drugs and how our cells react.
But some general patterns about nutrition’s impact on cancer are emerging, and while the evidence may not be definitive on all counts, scientists are providing enough fodder for all of us to rethink what we put on our plates.
Eating to beat cancer: Vegetables that cheat the beast
If you were to ask me for three simple changes you could make this month to boost your chances of fighting the beast, here’s what I’d suggest:
1. Embrace alliums (onions, garlic, leeks), crucifers (broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other members of the cabbage family) and dark, leafy greens. Studies show they top the list of cancer-fighting veggies, assuming they’re not overcooked. Both groups contain smelly sulfur compounds that protect against carcinogens and lead cancer cells down the path to suicide. Crucifers also seem to protect against estrogen, one of many hormones that signal cancer cells to grow.
2. Get your blood sugar under control. That means watching your intake of simple sugars (including fruits) and the more complex ones called carbs — potatoes, breads, pastas and grains, even whole ones. All increase your blood sugar; in response, your pancreas pours out insulin — another hormone that can spur cancer growth. By focusing on non-starchy veggies, fiber, good proteins and a small portion of healthy fats, you’ll help regulate your blood sugar.
3. Cook with spices, herbs and verve. “It’s well known that herbs and spices have a variety of anti-cancer benefits,” says Dr. Gary G. Meadows, who did the study identifying the plant elements that affect metastasis-suppressing genes. Because they work in different ways, “it’s important to eat a variety of spices and herbs, both fresh and dried, to maximize the anti-cancer activities that they have,” Meadows says.
Turn your kitchen into a shrine to Earth’s diversity. Make Indian, Thai, Italian feasts. Liven up your meals with basil, rosemary, parsley, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric (which you should mix with black pepper and heat in a dab of olive oil to ensure absorption.) While it’s not always the easiest option, cooking at home is the best way to control your destiny.
Broccoli puttanesca, anyone? Steam the greens lightly — and pass me the cooking water!
Photo: Harriet Sugar Miller. Credit: Holly Botner