Nearly every American will be affected by cancer, whether it’s first or secondhand, since almost 40 percent of us will be diagnosed with the disease in our lifetime. Thankfully, most cancer is preventable, and more and more research is linking a healthy diet to a reduced cancer risk.
Dr. William Li has been on the forefront of this research, dedicating himself to converging the medical and nutrition fields to beat chronic disease. Li shares his breakthrough research in preventing and treating disease by eating healthy food in his book, Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself, which has been praised by renowned health experts around the world.
We got the opportunity to speak with Dr. Li about his research, and which foods we need to be eating every day to prevent cancer. Some of these foods just may surprise you!
There’s some concern over the health benefits of tomatoes (thanks, Tom Brady), but Dr. Li says tomatoes are a huge part of fighting disease. This is due to an antioxidant called lycopene, which does so much more than give tomatoes their bright red color. Dozens of studies have discovered lycopene’s powerful cancer-fighting properties, most notably when it comes to cancers of the stomach, prostate, and lungs. There is also evidence to support that lycopene can reduce our risk for colorectal and breast cancers—the most common cancers in American men and women, respectively.
But not all tomatoes are created equal when it comes to lycopene content! Li says he always reaches for either San Marzano or cherry tomatoes at the market, because they pack the biggest lycopene punch when cooked. You can also get a lot of bang for your buck with canned tomatoes—preferably organic.
When it comes to raw tomatoes, Li says to look for the tangerine variety—named for its orange color—as these babies don’t have to be cooked to give you the lycopene boost you need. Consuming the equivalent of a half-cup serving of tomato sauce several times a week is all you need to start reaping the benefits.
Tree nuts like cashews and almonds are all the rage these days, but Li wants you to pay special attention to the walnut. Li says walnuts are great for fighting off cancer, thanks to their omega-3 and fiber content.
Omega-3 fats are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, which is crucial for staving off disease. Fiber’s role as a prebiotic—the food for our good gut bacteria—is a necessary part of cancer prevention, as Li says the microbiome is responsible for controlling our immune system, healing our body, and promoting brain health.
Li advises buying walnuts either raw or lightly salted, and if you need more flavor, you can make your own spice mix at home that isn’t so high in sodium or sugar as what you may find at the grocery store. He eats a handful almost every day to get the omega-3 boost he needs, and of course, to help fight off cancer!
Soy is pretty hotly debated, as many believe soy’s phytoestrogen can be a factor in promoting breast cancer. Li says soy is actually beneficial for cancer prevention and treatment—and there are many studies to back up his claim!
Li explained that human estrogen is vastly different from plant estrogen, as plant estrogen is thousands of times weaker than the kind produced in our bodies. He says that soy can actually shrink cancer cells and prevent cancer growth. Not only that, but soybeans are full of plant protein, fiber, iron, and magnesium. Now that’s a superfood worthy of its title!
RELATED: Why You Should Be Eating More Soy—Yes, Really
Li says all you need to start reaping those cancer-fighting benefits is just 10g of soy each day—equivalent to a cup of soy milk. He advises opting for healthier, less-processed forms of soy such as edamame, tofu, tempeh, and soy milk instead of “vegan junk food” like plant-based cheeses and saturated fat-laden burgers.
Looking for more healthy eating tips?
We all know green tea is healthy, but few of us know why. Li says green tea is loaded with antioxidants, plus it boosts our immunity, strengthens our microbiome, and helps fight off cancer! Matcha is specifically thought to be even more powerful. Because it’s grown in the shade, matcha has a bright green color (from its higher levels of chlorophyll and increased levels of the amino acid L-Theanine), and there have been strong associations linking matcha consumption to cancer prevention.
Incorporating green tea into your routine is as simple as replacing coffee during your mid-day slump or adding a teaspoon or two of matcha into your morning smoothie. Li drinks 2-3 cups of green tea a day to reap the full benefits.
Anthocyanins are the antioxidants responsible for giving purple potatoes their jewel-tone hue, and have some serious cancer-fighting powers. Anthocyanins are anti-angiogenic, meaning they cut off the growth of cancer stem cells and prevent them from spreading throughout our bodies.
Anthocyanins also have anti-inflammatory properties and help regulate the genes responsible for cell mutation and tumor growth. Most of the research done on anthocyanins is in relation to skin and gastrointestinal cancers and diseases. Try swapping white or sweet potatoes for purple potatoes (when you can find them) once or twice a week, or combine all your favorite potato varieties into a multicolor potato salad.
1-Day Cancer-Fighting Meal Plan
Luckily it sounds like eating to beat disease can be pretty tasty after all! Li is a big proponent of nutrition education to make healthy eating decisions less out of fear and more out of empowerment. Here’s a delicious one-day meal plan for incorporating these five superfoods into your diet with ease.
If you still want to enjoy your morning cup of joe (which Li also deems a cancer-fighting food), try adding a few teaspoons of matcha to a bowl of Greek yogurt, healthy granola, and berries to kick off your day.
View Recipe: Matcha Yogurt With Sunflower Granola
This salad is super easy to meal prep, and you can make a big batch of tangy tempeh croutons to use all week long! We especially love tempeh for its probiotic benefits as well to boost our gut health.
View Recipe: Early Summer Salad With Tempeh Croutons and Beet Dressing
This potato salad is as delicious as it is stunning. It has such a great smoky flavor and makes us rethink the classic cold potato salad entirely!
View Recipe: Smoked Potato Salad
Follow in Dr Li’s footsteps and enjoy a fiber and healthy fat boost at snacktime with a quarter-cup serving of walnuts. You could also enjoy this with a small serving of no-sugar-added dried fruit, like apricots or blueberries.
This Mediterranean-inspired dish is so satisfying and healthy at the same time. It’s one of our favorites in the summer for weekend grilling and using up the season’s best tomatoes. You can also pair it up with couscous, quinoa, or another healthy grain for a fiber and vitamin boost!
View Recipe: Tahini-Marinated Chicken Thighs With Cucumber and Tomato Salad
If you’re interested in learning more about eating to beat disease, check out DrWilliamLi.com to download a shopping list of over 200 disease-fighting foods!