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Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are excellent food choices for overall health and disease prevention. Photo by Roni Java

By all means, eat your broccoli

One bright, sunny day in 2011 after I’d finished many months of surgeries, chemo and radiation, I took my little bald self and went for a checkup at the U.C. Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center in Sacramento. There I sat, waiting cheerfully for my amazing oncologist.

The doctor came in, we smiled at one another and hugged, and I chirped, “OK, today let’s talk about what I should be eating and drinking to keep from ever getting cancer again!”

He is always so kind to me. So when he paused, looked at me and sat down knee-to-knee, I just listened.

“There is no magic bullet,” my doctor said, taking a deep breath. “I have patients who drink green tea all day long and cancer comes back. I have patients who eat a cheeseburger every week and never get cancer again. Cancer is fickle. I’m sorry Roni, the research just isn’t there. But by all means, eat your broccoli. Eat well, eat healthy, and reduce your exposure to chemicals. Then be happy and go on from here like you never had cancer in the first place.”

I love that man.

So I went home and put my research to work. I switched out my household cleaners for vinegar and water and checked every lotion, shampoo and cosmetic for phthalates, oxybenzone and parabens (into the trash they went). I ordered some new walking shoes and went to the grocery store. Then I took a huge nap.

Improving our internal terrain

I think I could be president of Nutrition Geeks Anonymous. Certainly vice president, if such an organization existed. I started hanging out at nutrition bookstands when I was in high school, learning fascinating things about nutrient densities, staying the heck away from stuff like evil trans fats, and processed foods.

Absorbed as I’ve been for so long, that didn’t stop me from getting breast cancer.

Today, I’m happily in remission and I still don’t eat a totally perfect diet, but I’m up on the information about the impact of what we eat and how we can “change the terrain” of our interior biological environment to make it less hospitable to cancer, inflammation, heart disease and other major killers.

I’m telling you all of this because in the intervening years since I was diagnosed, a lot more research has happened and there is a great deal we can do to help ourselves achieve optimum health, especially with one important thing over which we have individual control — the stuff we eat and drink.

The times, they are a changing

The resources today are showing support for better food choices. It makes sense. Why would we doubt that we ARE what we EAT?

I’m excited when I see studies that line up Petri dishes of cancer cells and inject them with extracts of veggies with the result that the cancer cells stop growing. This is called “inhibiting cancer cell growth.” That’s huge.

In his international bestseller Anticancer: A New Way of Life, David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D. indicates the best ones so far always turn out to be garlic, leeks, onions, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, spinach and yes, broccoli. Sometimes beets, asparagus and green beans make a good showing, too. Several spices have also shown positive impacts, including turmeric and cinnamon.

Dr. Servan-Schreiber covered a whole lot of additional ground in that excellent book, including lifestyle issues worth looking at, so it tops my list of recommended resources.

And even if you’re not worried about the possibility of cancer — which I call the Zombie King because those cells refuse to die and they have ingenious ways of co-opting our other cells and capillaries to keep feeding them — healthy food options will go a long way toward keeping at bay heart disease, diabetes, strokes and other maladies.

No shortcuts, just good choices

Americans are busy people and we like convenience. Fast foods and processed foods make it easy for us to keep up with the pace of our lives. And honestly, they’re not the real culprits in our epidemic health problems as a nation. We really need to eat more whole foods, more fruits and veggies, less sugar and soda pop, fewer chips and starches.

And we know it.

You’ve heard the mantra, eat well and exercise. The roadmap to well-being hasn’t changed much in our human evolution. But there are some weird things about modern life.

For instance, in 2002 I saw Mitra Ray, Ph.D. speak about her research with the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society when she published her book “From Here to Longevity.” She’s a degenerative diseases specialist.

“The degenerative process is multiple things going wrong; we can slow this down,” she said (yes, I took notes).

Ray told the audience ancient humans ate 200 different kinds of plants, but today we go to the grocery store and tend to buy the same five to seven veggies every week. We need to eat more variety, she said, and we need to eat a rainbow of fruits and veggies (the denser the color, the more nutrients they have).

“Take care of your body first, invest in your wellness not illness,” Ray added, suggesting we subsidize illness by spending money on fast foods, sugar and other unhealthy foods that cause cellular damage and premature aging.

“It happens over a lifetime, but we’re speeding it up,” she said. “Think about every penny you spend as an investment in your health.”

Now that’s a wellness plan I’m on board with.

Recommended Resources

Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber M.D., Ph.D.

The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer by Dan Buettner

The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth by Jonny Bowden Ph.D. CNS

From Here to Longevity by Mitra Ray Ph.D. with Patricia Cannon Childs

Super Foods RX Diet by Wendy Bazilian D.PH., M.A., R.D., Steven Pratt M.D. and Kathy Matthews

Environmental Working Group

A public education and research nonprofit. They also have an app and consumer guides on food scores, sunscreen safety and pesticides in produce, to name a few.

Healthful Shopping and Cooking

(A partial list, organic preferred)

Wild-caught salmon

Mackerel

Anchovies

Sardines

Omega-3 eggs

Organic meat and poultry

Lentils and peas

Beans and chickpeas

Mung beans

Soy products

Multi-grains, rice and quinoa

Oats, bran, flaxseed, rye, barley

Sweet potatoes and yams

Olive oil and flaxseed oil

Broccoli, cabbage, bok choy

Brussels sprouts, cauliflower

Carrots, pumpkin, squash

Tomatoes, beets, spinach

Portobello and crimini mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms

Berries, cherries, citrus fruits

Persimmons and apricots

Pomegranate juice

Walnuts, almonds, pecans

Dark 70 percent chocolate

Red wine (in moderation)

Source: Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D.

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