Can we eat to starve cancer?

In this week’s article, we are discussing a Ted Talk titled ‘Can we eat to starve cancer?’ presented by William Li, a researcher, doctor and Medical Director of the Angiogenesis Foundation.

So firstly, can we eat to starve cancer?

The answer is a resounding yes!

What is angiogenesis and what does it have to do with starving cancer?

Angiogenesis is the process of developing new blood vessels in the body and is described by Dr Li as the vessels of life, but also the vessels of death.

Why should we care about blood vessels?

Our bodies are quite literally packed with blood vessels, 60,000 miles worth in the typical adult which, end to end, would circle the earth…. twice. Our body has the ability to regulate the number of blood vessels in an area at a given time, through an elaborate and elegant system of checks and balances which stimulate or inhibit angiogenesis.

Research has shown that there can be a number of defects in the system where the body can’t grow enough new blood vessels or prune back the blood vessels in the right place at the right time. These defects manifest as a number of diseases including arthritis, blinding diseases, obesity, stroke, coronary heart disease and the hallmark of angiogenesis defects – cancer.

Cancer is where a group of abnormal cells grow and hijack the body’s normal balanced system of angiogenesis. The tumour needs nutrients and oxygen to grow and spread and does this by sending chemical signals that stimulate angiogenesis in the area, in turn allowing blood, oxygen and nutrients to be sent to the tumour and continue growing.

Why does angiogenesis matter?

According to Dr Li, we are all forming microscopic cancers in our body all the time. Autopsy studies from individuals who had died in car crashes found that 40% of women in their 40-50’s has microscopic cancers in their breasts. About 50% of men in their 50-60s had microscopic cancers in their prostate, and virtually 100% of us, by the time we reach our 70’s will have microscopic cancers in our thyroid. Yet without angiogenesis, most of these cancers are not, and will never become dangerous, ‘cancer without disease’.

So, if angiogenesis is the tipping point between a harmful tumour and a harmless tumour, what can we do to help prevent these harmless cancers tipping to the dark side?

The causes of cancer are principally environmental factors (90-95% environmental compared to 5-10% genes), and within those environmental factors, diet alone accounts for 30-35%. Instead of thinking of things to strip away and remove from diets, Dr Li and his team found a plethora of foods that, quite literally, reversed abnormal angiogenesis and boosted the bodies defence system against diseases such as cancer.

For instance, Resveratrol, one of the active ingredients in red grapes and red wine, inhibited abnormal angiogenesis by 60%. An extract from strawberries was found to potently inhibit angiogenesis, and the same occurred with soya beans and a number of other foods used daily. Even more astonishingly, research has shown that when foods are combined, the potency of the anti-angiogenesis increased, proving a form of ‘food synergy (eating a combination and range of healthy foods is far more effective than a lot of one singular healthy food). Below is list of foods Mother Nature has laced with anti-angiogenic properties that can help protect us from a number of diseases.

Dietary sources of naturally-occurring antiangiogenic substances

  • Green tea
  • Strawberries
  • Blackberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blueberries
  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Lemons
  • Apples
  • Pineapple
  • Cherries
  • Red grapes
  • Red wine
  • Bok Choy
  • Soy beans
  • Kale
  • Ginseng
  • Maitake mushroom
  • Liquorice
  • Turmeric
  • Nutmeg
  • Artichokes
  • Lavernder
  • Pumpkin
  • Sea cucumber
  • Tuna
  • Parsley
  • Garlic
  • Tomato
  • Olive oil
  • Grape seed oil
  • Dark chocolate

Although this research was first presented in 2010, more recent studies have found much of the same staggering results. In a previous CP+R research club, we discussed and shared the benefits of a Mediterranean diet for heart health and preventing coronary heart disease. A paper published in 2019[1] again highlighted the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, but this time due to its anti-cancer and anti-angiogenic effects in the body. The Mediterranean diet represents a number of biologically active compounds found in various foods such as, tomatoes (lycopene), olive oil (oleuropein), fruits and red wine (resveratrol), fish (omega-3 fatty acids) and some dairy products (lactoferrin), all of which had potent anti-cancer and anti-angiogenic effects which could very simply beat cancer at its own game and never allow the tumour to advance from harmless to harmful.

The main take-away from this research is that everyone, to a certain extent, can control their own health by easily adapting their diet to consume more of these bioactive compounds and help prevent disease. There are many things we cannot control in our lives and bodies; however, this research has clearly highlighted what each of us can do for ourselves and how the foods we eat can have a powerful effect on our bodies and in turn our health.

We can all eat to beat disease.

[1] Martínez-Poveda, B., Torres-Vargas, J. A., Ocaña, M., García-Caballero, M., Medina, M. Á., & Quesada, A. R. (2019). The Mediterranean Diet, a Rich Source of Angiopreventive Compounds in Cancer. Nutrients11(9), 2036.