By: Dr. Michael Greger, Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.
But anyway, back to beans. In terms of nutrient density, nutrients per calorie: are beans the most nutritious class of whole foods? Or is it fruit, nuts and seeds, vegetables, or whole grains? What should go on the base of a healthy eating pyramid? Beans, fruits, nuts, veggies, or grains?
Definitely vegetables, but which are the healthiest ones? A major advance was made this year ranking vegetables. Graphs like this that I’ve shared over the years that compare the antioxidant power of foods were all based on very primitive methods—basically just measuring how much a food slows down an oxidation reaction between two chemicals in a machine. That was the best we had, but it required a leap of faith that what was happening in the test tube could be extrapolated to what might happen in living human tissue.
This year, though, a landmark study was published, pitting 34 common vegetables against 8 different types of human cancers. Breast cancer, brain tumors, kidney cancer, lung cancer, childhood brain tumors, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and stomach cancer.
Let’s look at breast cancer—I’ll cover up the. What’s being measured is tumor cell proliferation. Here’s the control. You drip some water on a human breast tumor, and nothing happens—it’s still powering away at 100% growth rate. And these 7 vegetables appear useless against breast cancer, no different than placebo. But these 6 cut the cancer growth rate in half. And these 5 at the end stopped cancer growth completely—stopped these tumor cells dead in their tracks.
We need to eat a portfolio of vegetables. Take a look: radishes, do nothing against pancreatic cancer, in fact if anything they might accelerate growth but, against stomach cancer, they completely eliminated tumor cell growth. On the other hand, orange bell peppers don’t do much for stomach cancer, but can cut prostate cancer growth by more than 75%. So we need to eat a variety of vegetables, because each one tends to target different cancers.
If you’re particularly concerned about a specific cancer, like if you have a strong family history of breast cancer, then you can narrow it down and really nail those 5 or 6 veggies every day that excel at targeting breast tissue. But otherwise, to fight against any kind of cancer, we’ve got to eat a portfolio of vegetables to cover all our bases.
That doesn’t mean some veggies aren’t better than others. Some of these vegetables target multiple cancers at the same time. So using this groundbreaking new data, let’s play “Which is healthier.”
Building An Anti-Cancer Salad
Imagine you’re standing in line at one of those custom made-to-order salad places, where you get to choose your lettuce, choose your toppings, then choose your dressing. Lets assume that you don’t have a strong family history of any particular cancer, and so aren’t trying to hone in on avoiding one tumor over another.
First, let’s choose our lettuce. Boston, endive, radicchio, romaine, or spinach?
Out of the five, spinach is #1 against breast cancer—remember, the farther right the better it is at slowing down these cancer cells. #1 against brain tumors, #1 against kidney cancer, #1 against lung cancer, #1 against pediatric brain tumors—feed your kids spinach! #1 against pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and #1 against stomach cancer.
Now note it’s not #1 overall—there are 16 vegetables more powerful at stopping stomach cancer growth than spinach, but out of those five salad greens, spinach wins out across the board, against every cancer type tested.
What if the salad place said they were out of spinach, though? Which comes in second out of the four left to choose from.
For breast cancer, radicchio is #2. against brain tumors. radicchio, kidney cancer, radicchio, radicchio, romaine, radicchio, radicchio, and radicchio. So overall, out of those choices for greens, radicchio is number 2.
Back to the menu. Next we get to choose 4 toppings. Now there’s a long line of people behind you, all staring at you to make your choice. You don’t have time to ponder and pick the 4 absolute best, but you can at least make a guess as to roughly where on the graph they are.
According to this amazing new data, do carrots slow cancer cell growth rates more than 50%? Yes or no?
The answer is no. So shredded carrots aren’t going to make our top four toppings choice.
What about shredded beets? Yes or no?
Yes. Super yes! Brain tumor? Just beet it. Kidney cancer is a no, close to 50%, but not quite there. And then yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. So overall, yes for beets.
Are we putting cucumber on out salad? Yes? No?
As tasty as they may be… no. For most cancers it suppressed tumor cell growth less than 50%
What about a tomato? Yes or no?
No tomato either.
What about a potato? You can actually put potatoes onto your salad. Yes or no?
No potato either. Wait a second, no iceberg lettuce, carrots, cucumber, tomatos, potatos—that’s all people eat! That’s the problem. Even people eating their vegetables, aren’t really eating their vegetables. The majority of veggies people commonly eat have little effect.
Cutting to the chase: The line at the salad place is now out the door at this point. In this study there was one clear winner. One vegetable that completely 100% stopped cancer growth in 7 out of the 8 tumor lines. One of the most important findings of the year: which vegetable was it?
Was it bok choi? Broccoli. Brussel sprouts, fiddlehead ferns, garlic, kale, or red cabbage?
Number one against breast cancer? Garlic. Number one against brain tumors: garlic. Number two against kidney cancer: garlic. Lung cancer: garlic. Childhood brain tumors: garlic. Pancreatic cancer: garlic. Prostate cancer: garlic. And stomach cancer? Garlic. So might I suggest a garlicky salad dressing?
Wait a second, though. Is it just that garlic is toxic to all cells? Yes, it stops the growth of cancer cells, but maybe it stops the growth of healthy cells too? That wouldn’t be good. They tested for that. The black bars are cancer cells; the white bars are normal cells. As you can see garlic slams cancer cells, but doesn’t touch normal cells, and the same thing with pretty much all the vegetables. They’re selective; they go after the cancer cells but leave the normal cells alone. Veggies are amazing.
Now if you didn’t pick garlic and instead chose one of those others you probably weren’t far off. The two best families of vegetables for cancer prevention are the cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, kale, cabbage, and the allium family vegetables, like garlic, onions, and leeks. Let me just run through this one last time to highlight this important fact.
Starting from the beginning. Cruciferous vegetables in green; allium vegetables in yellow. What I want you to notice is the clustering of colors over on the right side, which illustrates the power of these two superfood classes of vegetables.
Whether for breast cancer, brain cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer, or brain cancer. Interestingly you’ll notice that bok choy is often the odd one out, apparently the least healthy of the cruciferous vegetables. Pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and finally stomach cancer.
So you know all those recipes that start with garlic and onions and then throw you in some greens—that, is the way to eat.
The researchers conclude: “the inclusion of cruciferous and allium vegetables in the diet is essential for effective dietary-based chemopreventive strategies.”
About Michael Greger M.D.
Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous “meat defamation” trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.