Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables have been described as “superfood”: Not only are they packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber, but they also have glucosinolates, a compound found through lab studies to reduce the risks of cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
(Although the lab work looked at the effects of glucosinolates on lab-grown cells from rats and mice, these kinds of findings aren’t always replicated in humans.)
The AICR also reports that the once strong link between populations who consume large amounts of cruciferous vegetables to those who have lower risks of cancer is no longer as strong and consistent. Due to more accurate study methods, researchers are finding that genetics play a role in how effectively cruciferous vegetables benefit different individuals.
So what does this mean? Can at least some of us go back to eating steak and hot fudge, as Woody Allen’s movie character discovered when he woke up 200 years into the future in his comedy, Sleeper?
Not so fast.
Registered dietician Alice Bender, nutrition communications manager at the AICR, explained during a recent interview that while researchers have yet to single out one specific compound to be the most beneficial, numerous population studies all report the same finding: People who eat a plant-based diet have lower risks of cancer than people who do not.
So instead of focusing on just one group of vegetables, Bender recommends that people eat a wide variety of vegetables and other plants. She says, “Each kind of vegetable offers its own set of cancer protective compounds and nutrients.”
To picture what a plant-based diet looks like, Bender elaborates: “Two-thirds of your plate, or more, is filled with plant-based foods like vegetables and fruits and whole grains; you can include beans and nuts in that. And then a third or less of your plate will have animal foods on it — meat, dairy, cheese, that kind of thing.”
Expanding on meats, she says people should avoid processed meats like corned beef, and limit their intake of red meats to 18 ounces per week.
Providing more specifics, Ashley Sakenas, a registered dietician at Einstein Healthcare Network, says it’s recommended that people eat five to nine servings of vegetables and fruits every day. Serving sizes are a cup of raw leafy greens, half a cup of cooked vegetables, a small piece of fruit and a cup of berries.
When eating vegetables, “raw is probably the best way to go, but a lot of times people don’t like eating them raw. The only way that I wouldn’t recommend cooking them is to boil them in water.”
During boiling, she adds, “you’ll notice that the water becomes green, and that can potentially be some of the compound being leeched out of the vegetable, so you might be reducing how much you’re actually getting in.”
Instead of salt, she recommends seasoning of a little bit of olive oil and spices.
Katrina Claghorn, a registered dietician at the Abramson Cancer Center, the University of Pennsylvania, uses the mnemonic device of the 3-Cs to help her clients remember what to eat: cruciferous, citrus and color.
Besides broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, Claghorn notes that there are other cruciferous vegetables to choose from such as radishes, horseradish, kale, watercress, collard greens, arugula, cabbage, turnips, rutabaga, bok choy and wasabi.
For color, she says, “when you go into a grocery store and you’re standing at the produce, you want to mix it up. So not just greens — not just the iceberg lettuce, the green beans and celery.”
Go the spectrum: “You want to get some red in there. You can get it from peppers, beets. You want some orange, so your carrots, your papaya, mangos; your blues and purples.”
She said it’s best to shop at a local farmer’s market where they’ve picked the produce that day or the day before. During the winter, frozen food can be the next best thing because the produce is generally picked and frozen when it’s ripe.
While registered dieticians help clients follow the recommended dietary guidelines, they also consider their clients’ medical conditions and preferences. Claghorn says, “People are so focused on nutrition and it’s health benefits that sometimes they forget it’s pleasure, and pleasure is very much part of eating.”
To help illustrate the balance between these three considerations is Chef J.D. Austin of Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel and Casino. Austin underwent surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital for esophageal cancer in April.
Since the esophagus is a tube that connects the throat to the stomach, Austin’s been having a tough time getting food into his stomach. At first he was on liquid foods, then soft, and now he eats what he wants, but in smaller portions.
Austin’s liquid diet included Ensure, zucchini, sweet potato purees, and liquefied fruits and vegetables. Even though “it’s not on a nutrition list,” he also mushed up some of his favorite junk food.
When it comes to junk food, registered dietician Monica Crawford, Austin’s dietician at the Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson, says she wanted him to eat whatever he could because his prognosis would actually be worse if he kept losing weight rather than if he ate junk food.
When Austin and other cancer patients resume eating normal diets, Crawford says, dieticians won’t say there’s anything they can’t have. If someone loves corned beef sandwiches, a dietician will find ways to fit the sandwiches into a healthy diet. She adds, “I’ve heard dieticians say if you eat well 90 percent of the time, the other 10 percent of the time you eat things that are less than healthy, still fine.
“I mean there’s a limit to what people can do, and there’s no perfection. And if it’s too restrictive, people won’t maintain” their healthy diets, she concludes.
Lynne Blumberg is a freelance writer who lives and tries to stay healthy in Philadelphia. This article originally appeared in the special section of "Fighting Cancer."