Superfoods for cancer patients

Updated 1/23/2017

Balanced nutrition and food selection play an important role in everyone’s health, but food choices become even more important for individuals battling mesothelioma and other types of cancer. Proper nutrition can help maintain strength and weight, reduce some treatment side effects, and assist in treatment recovery.

The hard part is sorting between helpful advice and hype when identifying true “superfoods.” From immunity boosters to anti-inflammatory properties, we have identified some great foods high on our superhero list.

Garlic and Onions

Forget the fables about warding off evil. Garlic earned its superfood status through facts. The National Cancer Institute compiled several international studies linking high garlic consumption and benefits to cancer patients. These traits seem to spread across many vegetables in the allium family, pointing to high antibacterial properties for blocking cancer-causing substances, as well as enhanced DNA repair. Such vegetables include:

  • Garlic
  • Onions (including shallots)
  • Scallions
  • Leeks
  • Chives

Most studies steer patients toward consumption of raw garlic for the greatest benefit. However, garlic will likely maintain many of its benefits if simply allowed to rest 10 minutes between chopping and cooking.

A word of caution before you add the extra garlic: It can serve as a natural blood thinner. If you’re taking blood thinners or about to undergo surgery, consult with a doctor before significantly increasing your garlic consumption.

Dark Leafy Greens (and Other Cruciferous Vegetables)

You knew the green stuff would be here somewhere, as mothers and doctors alike seem to always remind people to eat their green vegetables. In particular, dark leafy greens such as various types of kale, mustard greens, and collards contain a high amount of phytochemical carotenoids, shown to inhibit cancer growth.

While patients on blood thinning medications need to use caution due to the high amounts of vitamin K – which can offset the effects of anticoagulants – M.D. Anderson Cancer Center advises that the carotenoids found in greens, such as beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein, can boost the immune system. In fact, these types of nutrients are found in all types of cruciferous vegetables, including those in the following table. (Hint: Many of these taste great when seasoned with turmeric, another cancer-fighting superfood – see below!)

Dark Leafy Greens
Other Cruciferous Vegetables

Dark Leafy Greens

  • Arugula
  • Bok choy
  • Cabbage
  • Collards
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Wasabi (leaf and stem)
  • Watercress

Other Cruciferous Vegetables

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Horseradish
  • Radishes
  • Rutabaga
  • Turnips

Not a fan of raw or cooked greens? Try incorporating them into smoothies balanced with sweeter fruits for a more mellow flavor. However you prefer them, follow the old “eat your greens” advice and make sure these vitamin-rich foods remain on your plate or in your glass.

Ginger

Cancer patients – especially those undergoing treatments triggering nausea side effects­ – have been singing the praises of ginger for years. The American Society of Clinical Oncology backs them up with studies confirming ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties and anti-spasmodic effects in the gut.

Incorporating ginger into your diet doesn’t have to be a big production. Typically, any amount between half of a gram and a full gram of ginger will work. A few ideas on how to do it include:

  • Chop it up and add it to your favorite recipe
  • Brew it with a nice mug of tea
  • Chew a piece of raw ginger like gum

Any of these approaches can go a long way in helping to overcome treatment side effects. In fact, ginger has long been used to help settle stomachs and combat nausea, a common side effect of chemotherapy treatment, for thousands of years.

Pomegranate Juice

Pomegranates are an ancient fruit with a long history of possible medicinal uses. Not only might it help inhibit cancer cells from multiplying, but there is some evidence that it can also help decrease the spread of carcinogenic cells.

A University of California Riverside study presented to the American Society for Cell Biology showed that pomegranate juice inhibits proteins associated with cancer spread – without causing additional side effects.

Pomegranate can have a strong taste, which may be a problem for some cancer patients, whose taste buds can change as a result of treatment. If drinking this dark crimson juice straight is unpalatable to you, try one of the following methods to incorporate it into your diet:

  • Enjoy it with sparkling water to make a spritzer
  • Add it to a cup of tea (it seems to go especially well in iced teas)
  • Incorporate it into a vinaigrette salad dressing or barbecue sauce
  • Add it to smoothies with other fruits

Pomegranate juice is also rich in vitamin C, and studies have continued to show encouraging results in both breast cancer and prostate cancer patients. As with any juice, look for the purest available, avoiding additive sweeteners.

Turmeric (Curcumin)

While still in early stages of clinical trials, research on the effects of the spice turmeric (also known as curcumin) is gaining attention by the Mayo Clinic and others regarding prevention and treatment of various types of cancer. This spice is found in many Asian and Middle Eastern recipes, and it often gives curry its golden hue.

The spice contains two enzymes known to decrease inflammation and is often used to ease digestive problems. As it is thought to decrease risks for blood clots, patients on blood thinners may need to avoid large quantities of this spice. It can also inhibit some other medications – including several common breast cancer chemotherapy drugs – so it is extremely important to discuss its effects with your doctor or other medical staff before increasing your intake of turmeric.

Turmeric seems to go especially well with some of the cruciferous vegetables mentioned above. Some common ways to include turmeric in your diet include:

  • Eat as part of a curry (turmeric is included in many curry seasoning blends)
  • Mix with high-protein dishes, such as egg or tofu scrambles
  • Season roasted vegetables like cauliflower or broccoli
  • Add to sautéed greens such as kale, collards, or cabbage
  • Flavor plain rice or make a pilaf with it
  • Sprinkle into a bowl of your favorite vegetable or chicken-based soup

Turmeric is growing more common as its health benefits continue to be revealed. There are a lot of great recipes out there that include turmeric, so it should be something that can be easily incorporated into your diet.

Bonus Super-Drink: Green Tea

Tea is the second most popular drink in the world, and throughout the centuries it appears to have traveled hand-in-hand with medicinal treatments. Today, researchers are starting to put together the health benefits of tea, especially green teas.

The Journal of Oncology has published research indicating that consumption of green tea correlates with a decreased risk of colon, prostate, lung, esophageal, and other cancers. There is also significant evidence that green tea can actually prevent the spread of cancers.

Green tea also helps patients curb caffeine consumption, as it generally has lower levels of caffeine than both coffee and black tea. Caffeine can often further complicate sleep patterns, which may be messed up already due to chemotherapy and other treatments.

The most obvious way to consume green tea is as a drink. Brewed hot or cold, it will provide a health boost to your body’s natural cancer-fighting capabilities. It can also be added to recipes, most commonly by steeping a bag or two in water that is then used for other things, such as to make rice or oatmeal.

Note that there is inconclusive evidence about the benefits of matcha, a powdered form of green tea that is often dissolved rather than steeped. If you are looking for the benefits of green tea, your best bet is to steep a bag in water, rather than using the powdery matcha in drinks or as an ingredient in foods.

Diet Is Important (But Not Everything)

While researchers have shown that these superfoods can help prevent or even reduce the effects of cancer, it is important to remember that diet is not the only factor when it comes to cancer diagnosis and treatment. Cancer can develop for many different reasons – from environmental factors such as exposure to asbestos or too much sun, to genetic or other factors – and eating these foods will not reduce that risk completely.

Nonetheless, incorporating these foods into your diet, whether you have mesothelioma, another form of cancer, or even no cancer at all, is still a great idea. A balanced diet incorporating these superfoods goes a long way in supporting overall health, and it can provide energy and comfort throughout your cancer treatment. Just be sure to eat the foods themselves, rather than trying to get the same benefit from supplements, which are not well absorbed by the body.