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Seven (Easy to Find) Foods That May Help Prevent Cancer

(Courtesy of WEBMD.com)

Reach for these super foods to supercharge your odds of staying ahead of cancer and maximizing your health. (by  Elizabeth Lee)

A bowl full of bright green steamed broccoli. You say either “Yum!” — or “Where’s the double cheeseburger?” But you know the broccoli is good for you, especially sans melted cheese. The question is, how good? And more to the point, can it — or any food — help prevent disease, such as cancer?

The answer is yes — some foods do show cancer-fighting properties, though no one is yet able to say one food or another can stop cancer in its tracks. Still, a body of research suggests an overall healthy diet filled with colorful fruits and vegetables is the key to skirting heart disease, diabetes, and possibly cancer, too.

In fact, scientists know more about what not to eat — processed meats, salty foods, sugary drinks, huge helpings of red meat — than which fruits and vegetables to pile on your plate. But they do know those foods matter.

A comprehensive review of thousands of studies on diet, physical activity, and weight conducted for the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research pointed to the benefits of eating mostly foods of plant origin. Foods such as broccoli, berries, and garlic showed some of the strongest links to cancer prevention.

They’re low in calories and fat and power-packed with phytochemicals and antioxidants that may help reduce your cancer risk.

Antioxidants, Phytochemicals, and Cancer

You’ve heard of antioxidants, such as vitamin C, lycopene, and beta-carotene, which are in many fruits and vegetables. Studies suggest that people who eat meals that are rich in fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of cancer. A variety of chemicals from plants known as phytochemicals also seem to protect cells from harmful compounds in food and in the environment, as well as prevent cell damage and mutations, says Jed W. Fahey, ScD, MS, a faculty research associate at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who studies how cruciferous vegetables help protect against disease.

A diet that could ward off cancer really doesn’t look that different from the healthy foods you should be eating anyway, says Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, PhD, RD, a professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. That means plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains and lean meat or fish.

And weight matters too. Keep the scale at a healthy number and shed some pounds if needed. “Everybody knows overweight and obesity are risk factors for heart disease and diabetes,” says Arthur Schatzkin, MD, DrPH, chief of the nutritional epidemiology branch and senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute. “It’s now clear [both are] a major risk factor for breast cancer, endometrial cancer, colon cancer — a lot of them.”

So what foods should you load up on to give your body the best chance of steering clear of cancer? WebMD scrutinized research, sometimes conflicting, to tease out some foods you’ll want to eat plenty of, starting right now.

Garlic: Stinky Breath, but Super Healthy

Whoever thought garlic breath would be good for you? The same sulfur compounds causing that odor may also stop cancer-causing substances from forming in your body, speed DNA repair, and kill cancer cells.

Want more? Garlic battles bacteria, including H. pylori (the one connected to some ulcers and stomach cancer), and it reduces the risk of colon cancer.

To get the most benefit, peel and chop the cloves and let them sit 15 to 20 minutes before cooking. That activates enzymes and releases the sulfur-containing compounds that have the most protective effect, says Doyle. And stick with the cloves, not the dietary supplement. “There is no solid evidence that dietary supplements are going to reduce your cancer risk,” Schatzkin says.

Garlic is the powerhouse of the allium family, but onions, leeks, chives, and scallions might also protect against stomach cancer, some research suggests.

Broccoli: Phytochemical Powerhouse

Eat your broccoli, mom always said. She was right. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, kale, and cauliflower contain phytochemicals called glucosinolates, which produce protective enzymes that are released when you chew the raw veggie, rupturing the cell walls.

Your body also produces those enzymes in the intestines, Fahey explains, and when raw or cooked broccoli passes through, the enzymes are activated.

One of the most protective of these enzymes is sulforaphane. “Broccoli is the best source of this particular compound,” says Fahey, who studies sulforaphane in broccoli and broccoli sprouts. Scientists are researching how sulforaphane might reduce cancer risk, from detoxifying harmful substances (such as smoke and other environmental pollutants) in the body to operating as a kind of antimicrobial agent by attacking the bacterium H. pylori.

Broccoli and its cousins are most protective against cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach, according to a review of hundreds of clinical studies conducted for the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

So do what mom always said. Steam broccoli and toss with garlic and olive oil for a healthy dish — no greasy cheese sauce required. Or just nibble on some raw florets.

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