Confusing and conflicting health claims can make it a challenge to select healthy food, but the good news is that there are many nutritious options.
“There are so many ‘good-for-you’ foods to choose from that the list could be a mile long,” said Stacy Kennedy, a nutritionist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “But if I had to pick just five, I would start in the produce aisle of the grocery store.”
During National Nutrition Month, the nutrition team at Dana-Farber reminds everyone that maintaining a healthy diet that is rich in plant-based foods is one of the best ways to help prevent cancer. “It really is an excellent choice for everyone,” Kennedy said.
Bright-colored fruits and veggies are best
Look for bright-colored, in-season, preferably local, fruits and vegetables. “The key is color,” said Kennedy, who has a master’s degree in public health. “That is where the phytonutrients, or cancer-fighting properties, can be found. They help protect the produce and can also be beneficial for humans by strengthening the immune system.”
A simple way to remember what foods are best for you is that if it comes from the ground and can stain a shirt, you want to be eating it.
Here is a list of five of Kennedy’s favorite cancer-fighting foods:
Kale may be the new “it” food but long before it was popular, it was one of Kennedy’s favorites. “Kale is one of my go-to choices because it’s rich in a phytonutrient called indoles, which stimulates liver detoxification and helps fight cancer,” Kennedy said.
Indoles are found in the rich, dark green color of kale. Other members of the cruciferous family include broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts.
The American Cancer Society suggests consuming one serving of cruciferous vegetables a day, and studies show people who have diets rich in these vegetables have been found to have lower incidences of lung cancer, prostate cancer and stomach cancer. Kale that is cooked by steaming also may have cholesterol-lowering benefits.
“Tomatoes are a great food because they are rich in a phytonutrient called lycopene, which has been associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer,” Kennedy said. Tomatoes are available year-round in the supermarket, but when they are in season, try to buy them at local farm stands. That’s when they are at their nutritional peak.
A tip for getting the most nutritional value from tomatoes is to buy local, make them into a sauce, and freeze the sauce to use year-round. The lycopene is best absorbed when the tomato is cooked. Including a healthy fat, like olive oil or avocado, helps pack a more nutritional punch.
3. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes and yams are other foods that should be enjoyed year-round. They are rich in a phytonutrient called carotenoids. “As little as two servings a day of carotenoids have been shown to help reduce the risk of breast cancer, lung cancer and ovarian cancer,” Kennedy said.
What other foods are rich in carotenoids? Think orange like carrots, acorn or butternut squash, and pumpkins.
Phytonutrients like carotenoids are available in pill form, but Kennedy warned they do not have the same protective properties as those found in whole foods and may even cause harm in certain individuals. To get the healthiest boost, Kennedy said it is best to eat the food in its whole form.
Studies suggest that eating at least one apple a day can help prevent throat, mouth, colon, lung and possibly breast cancer. Besides being crisp, sweet and juicy, apples contain quercetin, a nutrient that protects the cell’s DNA from damage that could lead to the development of cancer.
“It’s best to choose organic, when possible, and eat them raw and with the skin on,” Kennedy said. “That’s where many of the nutrients are found.”
Although it may not be found in the produce aisle, quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is a great source of protein. It’s naturally gluten-free and often called an ancient grain because it’s been grown for thousands of years.
Quinoa is actually a seed that can be ground into flour. It is considered a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa also is rich in fiber and minerals like iron, magnesium and calcium, plus phytonutrients like quercetin.
Quinoa is a nice alternative to protein-rich foods like meat and fish. Other alternatives include lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and dark green, leafy vegetables.
About the Dana-Farber Institute
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is a principal teaching affiliate of the Harvard Medical School and is among the leading cancer research and care centers in the United States.
It is designated a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute and is one of the largest recipients among independent hospitals of NCI and National Institutes of Health grant funding. Learn more at danafarbercancerinstitute.