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