If you ever heard the words “you have to eat your broccoli” at the dinner table when you were young, your parents was right! Broccoli and other vegetables (such as brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, bok choy, etc) belong the the cruciferous or Brassica family. More and more research has found that these veggies are indeed nutrition powerhouses. I recently joined the list-serv for the oncology practice group for dietitians so I’ve been seeing a lot of information of how a healthy diet can be a powerful defense against cancer. Here’s why just one food, broccoli, is so special…
- Broccoli and other vegetables in the Brassica family contain sulfur-based compounds called glucosinolates.
- Glucosinolates are the compound that lends these vegetables the majority of their flavor.
- When these vegetables are chopped or chewed, the glucosinolates come in contact with enzymes which break it down into 2 other powerful cancer-preventing substances – Indole-3-Carbinol and Isothiocyanates. All these compounds work as antioxidants in the body helping to prevent damage to DNA which can lead to cancer formation. They can also alter cell-signalling so damaged (cancerous) cells do not keep reproducing.
- Numerous case-control studies have suggested that there may be a link between decreased cancer risk and cruciferous vegetable consumption in individuals – especially for lung and digestive tract cancers. True, these studies are mostly just observation and cannot prove causation – ie. you can’t tell someone that they will not get cancer if they eat lots of broccoli. However, it is proof enough to encourage people to eat more vegetables!
- For example, Tang et al conducted a case-control study on lung cancer risk in smokers, former smokers, and non-smokers based on their consumption of cruciferous vegetables. The conclusion? Regardless of smoking status, those who consumed >16 servings per month of cruciferous vegetables had a significant reduction in lung cancer risk. Also, eating >4.5 servings per month of raw cruciferous vegetables reduced the risk even more if you were a former smoker!
One interesting thing about these cancer fighting compounds is that it has to come from the whole food or it doesn’t work as well. Researchers are able to isolate many specific compounds in foods and provide it as a supplement. Yet, they do not see as much of a significant reduction in cancer as with the whole food. Just think, this is only one example of how your body can do really amazing things with the food that you eat. All the more reason to eat wholesome, real food! I love the way that Michael Pollan says it, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”.