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Is there something called an anti-cancer diet?

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Cancer is the second most common cause of death in India, after cardiovascular disease, says the website of National Institute of Cancer Prevention and Research. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in six deaths are due to cancer. According to the WHO website, cancer occurs when the body cells change due to the “interaction between a person’s genetic factors and three categories of external agents” called physical carcinogens, biological carcinogens and chemical carcinogens—one that is usually breathed or consumed.

Food intake plays a role in contracting the disease, and could also help keep cancer at bay. Says Kanchan Patwardhan, award-winning clinical dietician, “Nowadays, we are consuming a lot of preservative-laden food: canned food items, cured meat, and then there are the pesticides. People do not understand that all this, and the oxidative damages which a metro-dwelling person goes through, puts them at higher risk for any disease, even cancer.”

Oxidative damages = stress
In layman’s terms, when our body processes oxygen and produces energy, it also produces a small amount of ‘free radicals’ that are required for the body. However, when the free radicals are produced in excess, they start affecting the cells. In order to counteract the same, the body needs anti-oxidants. This imbalance between free radicals and the anti-oxidants in the body causes oxidative damages or oxidative stress.


“This is most common among urban people who are almost always in a hurry to get somewhere and that is also stress. For example, if a person wants to catch a local train to get somewhere, they are running towards it. That running is stress, not exercise, because in the back of their head is, ‘I should not miss my train’,” Patwardhan explains oxidative damage. According to her, these small stresses contribute to creating a big problem.

The balance can only be restored with increasing the anti-oxidants in the body. “These anti-oxidants come from different kinds of fruits and vegetables,” she maintains.

Acidic vs Alkaline
If you remember your chemistry lessons, there is something called pH balance of a solution (or liquid)—a scale of 0–14 where 7 means the solution is neither acidic nor alkaline. Lower than that is acidic; higher than 7, means the solution is alkaline.
Cancer cells thrive in acidic medium, and if our body doesn’t maintain the very narrow range of alkalinity, cancer can grow exponentially. Patwardhan says that having high-alkaline foods and avoiding red meat—which is acidic in nature—is a step to stop cancer from spreading. “You should opt for a plant-based diet. It is ideal if you can turn vegan. Your diet should not contain any animal protein, not even dairy. Animal proteins are highly acidic, and the plant-based food is alkaline in nature. If you want your body to fight cancer, do not consume acidic food,” she explains. “To make it alkaline, you can have lots of greens. Food that cancer patients should look at are all fruits and vegetables because they contain abundant antioxidants and promote alkalinity.  The ones that have maximum alkaline medium are spinach, kale, turmeric and tomatoes.”

Eat your vegetables
Going vegan should not be a fad but a seriously considered option for a cancer patient, says Patwardhan. However, doctors do not completely agree. According to Dr G. Girish, Surgical Oncologist at Aster CMI Bangalore, obesity has an indirect relation to developing cancer. Hence, food habits that lead to obesity should be changed. He maintains that a plant-based diet is healthy, as it provides a variety of nutrients, as well as vitamins and minerals that our body needs to fight all diseases.

“Our food habits—food with high-fat content, processed foods that are not fresh and things like red meat such as beef and even lamb in cases—are directly related to obesity. This might be an indirect association with cancer, so I suggest avoiding these items. Consume fresh food as much as possible, and a plant-based diet will be a bonus,” he asserts.

Patwardhan, on the other hand, swears by a plant-based diet saying our body needs to be an alkaline medium to not let cancer grow. She also says meat is not the only source of protein. “Your body needs protein to protect itself from the wear and tear and your body also needs protein to fight cancer. Go for lots of pulses—beans, lentils, oilseeds and even nuts in moderation to fulfil your body’s protein requirement. Almond, pistachio, cashew and even groundnut are great sources of protein,” she clarifies.

Diet for cancer
Dr Girish goes one step further and says, if a person is undergoing chemotherapy, s/he should have a specific diet to counteract the effects of the treatment. “Our body is undergoing massive changes as the drugs are being pumped into our blood. Hence specific food items are avoided which cause blood clotting to be delayed; like green leafy vegetables. At the same time, food that may improve haemoglobin content such as pomegranate, purple cabbage and even carrots are encouraged to be taken.”

Maintaining an alkaline diet is also good as cancer causes the body to turn slightly acidic, the oncologist explained. “Our blood is slightly alkaline in nature. The range is a narrow one between 7.35 and 7.45. So consuming high-alkaline food is good as it helps balance the increased acidity that cancer causes,” he says.

According to Patwardhan, cancer patients should choose fresh ‘wonder foods’ to combat their body’s disease. “Spinach, bitter gourd and bottle gourd are great alkaline foods. In fact, bottle gourd even helps in weight-loss in the long run,” she says. Apart from these, there is broccoli, cauliflower and even beans, to help with maintaining the alkalinity of our blood.

Cancer-fighting Wonder Foods

Turmeric + Black PepperTurmeric has a cancer-fighting compound in it, curcumin. Turmeric has always been known to have healing and analgesic properties because of this compound. The effect of it improves and gets better absorbed in the body when mixed with the compound piperine found in black pepper, similar to the capsaicin in chillies.

Broccoli + Sprouts

fresh broccoli in a bowl on a rustic table, food close up

Being a cruciferous vegetable, broccoli by itself is said to have cancer-fighting power. Mix bean sprouts to it and the power is doubled. Broccoli contains a sulphur compound called sulforaphane, which is also present in sprouts. Sprouts also have myrosinasem that enhances sulforaphane absorption when eaten together.

The CruciferousArugula, bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, horseradish, kale, radish and turnip, are all cruciferous veggies. They have sulphur-containing chemicals called glucosinolates. Upon digestion, these get broken down to form biologically active compounds that are notable for their anticancer effects.

GarlicGarlic falls into a class of plants that include onions, chives, leeks, and scallions. In addition to sulphur, garlic also contains arginine, oligosaccharides, flavonoids, and selenium. It also has antibacterial properties as well as the ability to block the formation of cancer-causing substances and halt the activation of cancer-causing substances.

BerriesBlueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries—they are not just flavours of pastries but a list of berries to be eaten for their list of anti-oxidants. Health benefits of berry fruits are also attributed to flavonoids and anthocyanins that protect from DNA damages as well as proliferation rates of malignant cells.