“Eat your vegetables.” It was good advice when you were a child, and it’s still good advice today. What you might not know is that cruciferous vegetables — a group of mustard family plants with four-petal flowers — may be particularly good for you if you have been diagnosed with cancer, and they can boost your chances of preventing cancer.
What are these magic vegetables? Reach for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, turnips, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, arugula, horseradish, radishes, rutabaga, turnips, collard greens, wasabi and watercress.
These vegetables are loaded with anti-cancer compounds known as isothiocyanates (ITCs) as well as additional nutrients with important anti-cancer effects. ITCs are a class of phytochemicals (chemical compounds a plant produces with protective properties) that help detoxify undesirable compounds in the body, such as developing or existing cancer cells. In fact, laboratory research has shown that ITCs in cruciferous vegetables can help prevent the development of cancer cells, slow cancer cell growth and even make cancer cells die.
ITCs and other compounds in cruciferous vegetables may reduce stress and inflammation, and ITCs’ interaction with other dietary intakes positively influences antioxidant activity. Stress, inflammation and antioxidants all play a role in whether or not cancer cells develop. Additionally, the sulforaphane (anti-aging compound) in cruciferous veggies appears to favorably impact a gene related to aging and cancer.
Studies have also shown glucosinolates (sulfur-containing chemicals in cruciferous vegetables) to have anti-cancer effects. Benefits include helping protect cells from DNA damage, inactivating carcinogens, reducing inflammation, improving antiviral and antibacterial strength and inhibiting tumor blood vessel formation and migration.
Studies on vegetables
While the positive effects of cruciferous vegetables are still being studied, the first evidence of their unique properties was discovered in a 1992 cancer research study that isolated sulforaphane from broccoli, identifying ITCs and other phytochemicals. Since then, many studies have been done, some of them specific to cruciferous vegetables’ impact relative to certain types of cancers. Key studies show particular benefits in the areas of prostate, colorectal, lung, liver, esophagus, stomach, small intestine and breast cancers.
Eating vegetables is definitely good for your overall health. However, it’s important to note research on the cancer prevention and properties for humans consuming cruciferous vegetables is still in developmental stages. Many variables must be examined. For instance, do people who eat cruciferous vegetables also practice other healthy behaviors reducing their disease risk? Do genetics play a role in how people metabolize ITCs?
What we do know absolutely is that vegetables are an important part of a balanced diet. We know that cruciferous vegetables are nutrient and fiber dense, relatively low in calories and research-linked to cancer prevention and cell development. Because cruciferous vegetables are so rich in nutrients, minerals and fiber, they are an excellent source of nutrition for all purposes.
Higher consumption of vegetables in general has been shown to help protect against other diseases as well. For optimal health, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating a variety of vegetables each day. A variety of colors should be consumed daily from the various vegetable groups: dark green (which includes cruciferous), red and orange, beans and peas (legumes), starchy and a fifth known as “other,” such as iceberg lettuce, green bean and onions.
Though the rich sources of glucosinolates (sulfur-containing compounds) give a pungent aroma and strong taste, don’t be deterred from trying or consuming cruciferous vegetables regularly. Properly prepared, these veggies taste delicious and complement a wide assortment of various American and ethnic menus. If cruciferous vegetables haven’t been part of your nutritional plan, you can find substantial nutritional information and recipes online, at your local library or in the cooking section at any local bookstore.
Let’s take one of those vegetables: Brussels sprouts. Chefs say these veggies get a bad reputation because people don’t know how to prepare them. Begin by trimming off all discolored portions of the stem and outer leaves. Wash them under running water or soak them in a bowl of water. Rinse. Before cooking, cut an “X” in the bottom of each sprout to ensure that the heat spreads evenly. (Baby Brussels sprouts often have a sweeter taste and can be purchased at the grocery store in the frozen food section.)
Cook the Brussels sprouts in the microwave or steam them until they are bright green and tender but still have some crunch. Generally, it takes about four to eight minutes in a microwave or eight to 10 minutes in a stovetop steamer. Roasting also works well for Brussels sprouts, with the oven’s dry heat working to evaporate the liquid from the sprouts, making them pleasingly firm and creamy-textured, while caramelizing their natural sugar for a bit of sweetness. To roast, drizzle olive oil over the sprouts, place them on an oiled baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.
Choose from various toppings to finish off your Brussels sprouts. A dash of fresh lemon juice and a spoonful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, a few chopped pecans and dried cranberries, a bit of balsamic vinegar with a touch of olive oil or salt and pepper to taste are all options. Try different recipes, such as the one below.
Roasted Brussels sprouts and potatoes
(Recipe from the American Institute for Cancer Research)
- 3/4 lb. Brussels sprouts, preferably large
- 2 small onions
- 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 3/4 lb. small potatoes, preferably two-inches or smaller diameter
- Salt and ground black pepper
- Place the oven rack in the center and preheat to 400 degrees.
- Wash the Brussels sprouts and remove the outer leaves.
- Cut crosswise into three to four rounds about a 1/2-inch thick.
- Halve the onions and cut crosswise into very thin slices.
- In a medium mixing bowl, combine the Brussels sprouts and onions.
- Add 2 tsp. oil and 1/2 tsp. salt and mix to coat the vegetables.
- Spread the coated Brussels sprouts in a thick layer on a foil-covered baking sheet and set aside.
- Grab your potatoes, wash them and place the potatoes in a bowl.
- Drizzle the remaining 1 tsp. of oil on the potatoes and mix well to coat.
- Once fully coated, place the potatoes on a second baking sheet.
- Place both baking sheets in the oven.
- Bake the Brussels sprouts with onions for 15 minutes before removing from the oven, stirring to mix any browned bits and rearranging on the tray in a thick layer.
- Place the tray back in the over to roast until the Brussels sprouts are almost tender, about another 10 to 15 minutes.
- The potatoes bake for a full 30 minutes or until a knife pierces the larger potatoes easily.
- Remove both baking sheets from the oven.
- Return the roasted Brussels sprouts to a mixing bowl.
- Transfer the potatoes to a cutting board and cut them crosswise into 1/2-inch slices.
- Add the potatoes to the Brussels sprouts.
- Using a fork, roughly break up the potato slices and mix then into the bowl of roasted Brussels sprouts and onions.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.
Makes four servings. Per serving: 150 calories, 4 g total fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 24 g carbohydrate, 4 g protein 6 g dietary fiber, 30 mg sodium.
More stories about cancer and diet
- Eating after cancer: Finding a new relationship with food
- Eating healthy after cancer: Nutrition tips for survivors
- Maintaining bone health during cancer treatment
- Don’t just survive cancer, thrive at the table