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“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