Fighting Breast Cancer With Red Sauce


Tomatoes, once thought to be poison, rank at the top of a list of foods that have shown real promise in fighting breast cancer.

There is some evidence to suggest that the Mediterranean diet, heavy on red tomato sauces, might do as well in preventing cancer as it seems to in preventing coronary heart disease. The secret of the Mediterranean diet is partly in its ingredients. In addition to tomato sauces, it is rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, breads, cereals and fish and relies less heavily on red meat than the typical American diet – all good cancer-fighting foods.

The major component of the Mediterranean diet is the antioxidant lycopene, primarily found in ripe, red tomatoes. Lycopene, one of the most powerful antioxidants, has shown amazing fighting power against a variety of cancers.

During the past decade, antioxidants, as a whole, have become “star nutrients” for their ability to protect our health by arresting the production of free radicals. Neal Barnard, M.D., in the book Food for Life explains how well antioxidants work.

Antioxidants “work by allowing themselves to be attacked and damaged by free radicals, sparing the cell itself,” Barnard explains. Left unchecked by antioxidants, free radicals can rob our health by “rusting” our cells. Over time, a shortage of antioxidants can make us vulnerable to a host of health problems.

Several recent studies have shown that a diet rich in tomatoes and tomato products is strongly linked to a reduced risk of certain cancers and actually may help prevent prostate cancer. A Harvard physician found that consuming tomatoes, tomato sauce or pizza more than twice a week, as opposed to never, reduced the risk of prostate cancer of 21 percent to 34 percent, depending on the food, for example. Other studies suggest that lycopene protects against cancer of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum, as well as cervical cancer.

Lycopene is most potently released during cooking and most readily absorbed by the body that way, according to Sheila Kelly, a clinical dietitian at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C. Cooked tomato sauces, the hallmark of a Mediterranean diet, provide the highest concentration of lycopene.

The other magic of the Mediterranean diet is in the cooking. Traditional Mediterranean cooking does not generally involve frying or broiling meat; rather, the protein source is slow cooked in a sauce, Kelly says. Research has shown that broiling or frying of red meats unleashes oxidized compounds called heterocyclic amines, which are powerful mutagens. The research shows that people who often consume well-done meats have higher rates of breast cancer than those who do not. Those red tomato sauces actually minimize the formation of those heterocyclic amines through their antioxidant ability, Kelly says.

When food is fried in Mediterranean cooking, it is usually in olive oil. Research has repeatedly shown that olive oil has a beneficial effect on the HDL cholesterol (the “good cholesterol”), which is beneficial in preventing coronary heart disease. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats, which are the least of all fat evils. Animal fats and transfatty acids or partially hydrogenated ones, such as those found in margarine, cookies and crackers, are the worst.

The true benefits of reducing fat have not been directly linked to preventing breast cancer. However, most nutrition experts note most Americans eat far more fat than their bodies need and that breast cancer rates are lower in Japan and China where the foods that women ingest are lower in fat. The same holds true for women in Mediterranean countries.

In addition to cutting calories, women also are advised to limit their consumption of alcohol. Studies have shown that one or two daily glasses of red wine (another favorite in the Mediterranean diet) may be good for the heart, but those few glasses of wine – or any type of alcohol – may increase breast cancer risks. The reason is alcohol apparently increases the circulation of estrogen in the body.

What else should you do about your diet to help prevent cancer? Start by making some choices from the list of top 10 foods to fight breast cancer:

  1. Instead of an alcoholic drink, mix a sprintzer made of 2/3 cup Concord grape juice, 1/3 cup club soda, ice and a dash of lime. Concord grape juice has the most cancer-fighting antioxidant power of any juice.
  2. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables that are chock full of antioxidant vitamins, such as A, C, D and E. If you want to get your daily dose of vitamin A, eat butternut squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach and cantaloupe.
  3. Carrot juice? Yes. Pressed carrot juice contains 700 percent of the daily recommendation for beta-carotene, which is in the same family as carotenoids. (Lycopene, found in tomatoes, is a carotenoid.) Look for carrot juice at your local health food store or gourmet section of your supermarket.
  4. Savor some salmon. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fats. Research suggests that women with higher tissue levels of omega-3 have lower rates of breast cancer. Omega-3 fats are currently part of an experimental diet to prevent breast cancer in a UCLA study.
  5. Make a tuna salad, only use canned white tuna – not light tuna – to get the most omega-3 fats.
  6. Crunch on a spicy daikon radish. It looks like a big white carrot and contains indole-3-carbinol, which lowers women’s levels of a type of estrogen that may promote breast cancer.
  7. Add a little more bran to your life. Women who eat one serving a day of a cereal high in wheat bran lower their level of breast cancer-promoting estrogen.
  8. Cook with garlic. Garlic has some cancer-fighting compounds. But if you’re going to cook with garlic, always peel and chop, then let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before you heat to allow the cancer-fighting compounds to develop.
  9. Mix your own olive oil dressing. Commercial “olive oil” dressings are usually a mix of oils. Make your own with half olive oil, half balsamic vinegar. Mediterranean women who use a lot of olive oil in cooking have low rates of breast cancer.
  10. Drink green tea. Green tea is rich in EGCG, a compound that inhibits breast cancer cells in mice.
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