Cancer-Fighting Foods and Recipes to Enjoy Every Day
Eating the right foods can lower your risk of The Big C. Here’s what to eat and what to avoid, with 15 easy, tasty recipes.
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Enchilada Power Bowls with Spicy Tofu by Full of Plants
“Cancer” used to be a word people whispered, as if by saying it out loud you were inviting it to strike. These days we’ve got a much better understanding of what makes a person more likely to develop cancer. Genetics matter, of course, but so do lifestyle factors. A key one: Your diet.
After decades of cancer research, scientists have a good handle on which foods lower risk. They've also found that certain foods and cooking methods can increase your odds of getting cancer. While eating a healthy diet can't guarantee you won't get cancer, the growing list of cancer-fighting foods is packed with versatile, great-tasting choices — and that's worth planning your meals around.
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Best cancer-fighting foods
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is one of the country’s leading organizations looking at the links between cancer and nutrition. They’ve issued a list of foods that fight cancer. You may not be surprised to learn they’re all plant foods, and many have been called “superfoods.” Some highlights:
Berries. Four different berries — blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and cranberries — make AICR’s list. Each offers a unique blend of cancer-fighting phytochemicals (plant compounds that help protect cells) like polyphenols and flavonoids. One flavonoid they all have in common: anthocyanins, the plant pigments that provide blue-red-purple colors and have known anticancer properties.
Citrus. Oranges and grapefruit have both been shown to help fight cancer, thanks to nutrients like fiber and vitamin C.
Cruciferous vegetables. Sulforaphane, the compound that gives veggies like broccoli, cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts their distinctive aroma, may have an upside: It appears to be effective in thwarting prostate cancer. And then there are the other nutritional benefits you get from these vegetables, including dietary fiber, folate, and carotenoids — the good-for-you orange, yellow, and red pigments like beta-carotene. Other veggies on AICR’s list include asparagus, carrots, garlic, spinach, winter squash, and tomatoes.
Whole grains. Research has found that eating three servings of whole grains each day can lower your cancer risk — especially your risk of colorectal cancer — by 15% or more. Whole grains offer plenty of fiber plus antioxidants like phenolic acids and lignans, which slow the growth of cancer cells by neutralizing dangerous free radicals.
Legumes and pulses. The list of cancer-fighting compounds in dry beans, lentils, and peas goes on for quite a while. It includes fiber, phenolic acids, flavonoids, folate, lignans, and more. And there’s so much research into soybeans’ benefits, it gets its own entry on the AICR list.
Olive oil. This hallmark of the Mediterranean diet doesn’t appear on AICR’s list, but a 2022 review of scientific literature found that people who eat the most olive oil have a 31% lower cancer risk overall than those who eat the least, and it protects against several specific types of cancer, including breast cancer and colon cancer. While there’s no research comparing extra-virgin olive oil to refined olive oil specifically for cancer protection, extra-virgin has far more polyphenols and other protective compounds. Plus, olive oil is great for preventing heart disease. Healthy fats FTW.
Foods to avoid when fighting cancer
Great news: The list of foods known to be carcinogens is much shorter than the list of foods that fight cancer.
Red meat. A significant amount of research connects beef, pork, and lamb consumption to colorectal cancer, and some links red meat to lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and nasopharyngeal cancer. But you don’t have to give it up completely — experts consider 12 to 18 ounces a week to be safe.
Charred animal protein. Regularly eating animal protein — including chicken and fish — that’s been cooked at a high temperature (think grilling or frying) or cooked until it’s well-done has been linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer.
Processed meat. If you regularly eat even small amounts of bacon, hot dogs, cold cuts, or other meats preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding preservatives, you’re upping your cancer risk.
Alcohol. Sorry, but regular drinking isn’t considered safe at any level — a single drink each day raises your risk for breast and esophageal cancers. Alcohol consumption in general is also linked to liver, colorectal, mouth, and stomach cancers. If it’s inconceivable to give up wine with dinner and you’re a woman, stop at one glass. Men should have no more than two drinks a day.
Sugar-sweetened drinks. Obesity is linked to at least a dozen cancers, and drinking your calories often leads to weight gain.
Recipes for cancer-fighting foods
It’s not hard to include these powerful ingredients in your healthy diet — here are tasty ideas to try all day long.
Kick off your day by demolishing some free radicals with easy, nutrient-packed meals.
Two out of the five ingredients — blueberries and flaxseed — in this smoothie have cancer-fighting properties. Add in how fast and easy this recipe is, and it’s a fantastic way to get going in the morning.
Black beans and tons of veggies make this yummy, Mexican-inspired brunch dish an excellent source of nutrients with major health benefits. Pro tip: Assemble the casserole before you go to bed, then in the morning pop it in the oven.
This quickie breakfast has an impressive assembly of ingredients on AICR’s list, like flaxseed, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and whole-grain oatmeal. It has a unique cooking method, too, for a quick way to soften oats, that results in a surprisingly creamy texture.
These midday meals do more than just give you energy to get through the afternoon — they provide plenty of cancer-fighting compounds.
Wouldn’t you just love to dig into this at lunchtime? With tofu (soy), berries, walnuts, cruciferous vegetables, carrots, and kale, this salad is an absolute powerhouse combo of items from AICR’s list.
Filling, delicious, and nutritious. For this soup, pretty much all you do is throw red and green lentils, garlic, spinach, and other ingredients in the IP, and you’ve got dinner. Save the leftovers for lunch, too — the recipe makes a generous eight servings. Even the seasonings have cancer-fighting properties: Cumin may protect you against stomach cancer and colon cancer, and turmeric contains curcumin, a compound that may slow the growth of cancer cells.
It’s simple, it’s delicious, and since this salad stays good in the fridge for a few days, it’s a great make-ahead option. The canned white beans offer anti-cancer nutrients, and tuna contributes omega-3 fatty acids, which appear to help fight some of the symptoms that go along with a cancer diagnosis.
Why limit your cancer prevention efforts to meals alone? Check out these excellent snack ideas.
It takes minutes to toss together this salad starring grapefruit and oranges in a honey-anise dressing. Let the flavors meld in the fridge before grabbing a fork — that make-ahead aspect means you can always have a fresh, cancer-fighting snack ready to go.
In addition to the two ingredients on AICR’s list — flaxseed and coffee — this irresistible munchie has other sources of cancer-fighting compounds like pumpkin seeds, which help prevent breast cancer; pistachios, which research shows can help prevent colon cancer; and dark chocolate — the jury’s still out on its anticancer effects, but it looks promising.
You don’t always want a sweet snack. Keep this super-easy dip in the fridge for a perfect savory option. It’s got soy, garlic, and olive oil in its cancer-fighting corner. Scoop it up with cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower for even more power.
Whether you’ve got time for leisurely weekend cooking or just need a quick after-work meal, dinner can help protect you from cancer.
There’s a reason these are called “power bowls”: This spicy, cheesy, vegan dinner offers cancer protection in the form of soy, lentils, whole grains, legumes, and tomato sauce. The tomato sauce provides lycopene, a type of carotenoid. Research suggests it can lower your risk of prostate cancer.
Chronic inflammation increases your cancer risk, so why not fight it with a lightning-fast dinner that combines several key ingredients in a most delicious way. This recipe gives you anti-cancer cauliflower, chickpeas, turmeric, and other veggies. Pro tip: Add a squeeze of lime juice at the end for a tart flavor boost.
How’s this for an exciting dinner? Salmon (a good-for-you fatty fish) takes a quick bath in jerk spices, lime juice, and olive oil, then hits a sheet pan along with seasoned Brussels sprouts and winter squash for a quick roast. You’ll serve them with quinoa, a sweet-and tangy dressing, and a handful of dried cranberries.
That’s right, even a sweet treat is an opportunity for some cancer-fighting nutrients.
How decadent does that look? Nobody has to know that such a lusciously chocolaty, fluffy confection is actually nutritious enough to be a mini-meal. Creamy silken tofu provides the texture, while chocolate and coffee bring the flavor. All three have cancer-fighting compounds. Bonus: It’s ready in no time.
A creamy cheesecake filling in a crumbly crust, topped with a fresh blueberry compote? Surprise! Not only is it vegan, but it’s also loaded with ingredients that can help prevent cancer: tofu, blueberries, whole grains, and walnuts. Eating just one ounce of nuts each day can lower your cancer risk by 15%.
Most carrot cakes are an exercise in excess, with tons of sugar and fat — and let’s not forget the cream cheese frosting. This version, on the other hand, is jam-packed with healthy stuff but it’s every bit as satisfying. For cancer prevention, we’re talking carrots, of course, as well as walnuts, whole grains, and flaxseeds. That frosting is made with tofu!
Eating to optimize your health
Whether you’re cooking with a particular health concern in mind or are simply looking to be as healthy as possible, we have lots more information and recipes to support you in these next articles.