Looks like Mom was right. Broccoli and cauliflower are good for you. According to a recent review, they're key ingredients in an eating plan – called the epigenetics diet – designed to fend off cancer.
The epigenetics diet also includes soybeans, red grapes and green tea, foods with active ingredients that influence genes involved in the cancer process.
While genetics is the study of inherited genes, epigenetics looks at changes in the activity of genes. Epigenetics investigates how environmental agents – including the foods you eat – influence which genes are turned on or off.
The traditional view of cancer is that the disease is caused by damage to genes and DNA mutations.
But scientists are learning that other forces – diet, stresses, toxins – have the power to change gene activity in healthy, undamaged cells and ultimately alter cancer risk.
Turns out your diet has the potential to reverse negative changes to gene expression, changes that could, over time, lead to cancer as well as other diseases.
The review by scientists from the University of Alabama at Birmingham outlines how specific components in foods can activate genes that suppress tumour growth and silence genes that promote cancer development.
The epigenetics diet, a term coined after the report's publication in March, is a daily diet that includes food components that turn on or off a gene's natural defences against cancer. And it's easy to adopt since the amounts of active ingredients in foods needed for cancer prevention are very achievable.
The following foods have been well-studied for their cancer-fighting properties. Use the tips below to add them to meals and snacks on a regular basis.
This green vegetable is an excellent source of potent anti-cancer phytochemicals called isothiocyanates, the most famous being sulforaphane which is plentiful in broccoli and broccoli sprouts.
Sulforaphane helps remove carcinogens from the body by activating certain genes that speed up the liver's production of detoxification enzymes.
•Top a homemade pizza with steamed, chopped broccoli florets.
•Add broccoli sprouts to stir fries, soups, salads, and sandwiches.
•Grate raw broccoli stalks and use in your favourite coleslaw recipe.
Don't stop at broccoli. Other good sources of isothiocyanates include bok choy, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale.
Green tea owes its cancer-fighting properties to a powerful antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). EGCG has been shown to turn on cancer suppressor genes and shut off genes that promote tumour growth.
For more antioxidants, drink green tea brewed from loose tea leaves rather than tea bags. (Whole tea leaves have more surface area for hot water to extract the antioxidants than tea bags.)
•Drink green tea during the day as an alternative to soft drinks, juice and coffee.
•Use brewed green tea to sauté or stir fry vegetables.
•As a change from water, drink green iced tea. Garnish with slices of lemon and sweeten to taste. (When making iced tea, double the strength of hot tea since the tea becomes diluted when poured over ice.)
Tofu, soy beverages, soybeans, soy flour and soy nuts contain genistein, a phytochemical that blocks the reproduction of cancer cells and slows the growth of several types of tumours.
•Enjoy a soy smoothie made with an unflavoured soy beverage and fruit for breakfast or a snack.
•Replace up to half the wheat flour with soy flour in muffin and quick bread recipes.
•Toss young green soybeans (edamame) into salads; add cooked soybeans to soups and chili. (Cooked soybeans are available canned and dried in grocery stores.)
Resveratrol, an antioxidant in red grapes, has strong anti-cancer properties. It's been shown to influence genes involved in the growth of many types of precancerous lesions and tumour cells.
•Serve stewed red grapes with poached or grilled chicken breast.
•Add sliced or whole red grapes to fruit salad or mix into yogurt for a healthy snack or dessert.
•Freeze red grapes and reach for them when you have a sweet craving.
This spice owes its cancer-fighting activity – and bright yellow colour – to a pigment called curcumin. Turmeric's active ingredient is thought to protect against cancer by inhibiting the synthesis of a protein instrumental in tumour formation and preventing the development of additional blood supply necessary for cancer cell growth.
•Sauté steamed cauliflower or green beans with turmeric and olive oil.
•Add extra turmeric to a homemade curry dish (turmeric is a staple ingredient in curry powder).
•Complement cooked lentils or a lentil salad with the flavour of turmeric.
Rich in a phytochemical called rosmarinic acid, research shows that rosemary is a powerful antioxidant agent, prevents carcinogens from binding to DNA, and stimulates liver detoxification of carcinogens.
•Add fresh rosemary to omelettes and frittatas.
•Mix fresh rosemary into meatloaf and burger recipes.
•Toss fresh rosemary into pasta sauces and soups.
This herb's anti-cancer potential is attributed to its sulphur compounds, phytochemicals also responsible for garlic's smell. Many studies have revealed garlic's anti-cancer effects, most notably for digestive tract cancers.
•Sauté leafy greens with garlic and sprinkle with fresh lemon juice.
•Add chopped raw garlic to marinades for meat, chicken and seafood; add minced garlic to soups and pasta sauces.
•Spread roasted garlic on whole grain crackers as an appetizer.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com .