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Antioxidants and Cancer: Is There A Connection?

By March 7, 2016Eat, Nutrition

I definitely am no expert, but after learning about the important role of diet in cancer prevention from a class I am taking, I wanted to share the knowledge!

Phytonutrients (think vitamins and minerals) have powerful effects on the body. They are capable of turning cells on and off and fighting free radicals (cells with unpaired electrons that steal an electron from other cells causing a domino-effect of cell damage), among their other benefits.

I attend Emory University, and I had a lecture on the topic by a leading oncologist, Dr. Omer Kucuk. He discussed with us how to harness the power of specific phytonutrients, such as genistein and lycopene, and the drastic benefits that result in preventing numerous types of cancer. Lycopene, found in high levels in tomatoes, reacts with free radicals and helps decrease DNA damage (damage to cells that increases cancer risk) in the body. Most of us science majors have heard of lycopene, but there are other less popularized nutrients (like beta-carotene) in tomatoes that amplify its benefits. These nutrients acting together can have powerful effects against cancer.

antioxidants cancer

Now on to that weird word I mentioned before: genistein. Although soy gets a bad rap, it has some serious benefits. Genistein, an isoflavone found in soy, helps block cancer cell growth because it sensitizes cancer cells. This means that genistein consumption can actually make chemotherapy more effective in the treatment of cancer. Genistein makes cancer cells more vulnerable to treatment. Genistein has no known negative side effects and can only improve cancer outcomes, particularly the outcomes of prostate cancer (listen up, soy-fearing guys!).

A diet high in antioxidants fights cancer-causing free radicals in the body and helps decrease oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is simply the stress your cells experience from everyday life. Continued oxidative stress leads to damage of DNA, which can increase your risk of cancer. Healthy fats, specifically omega 3s, help decrease oxidative stress in the body.

antioxidants cancerIt’s not a difficult equation: we simply need to eat healthier fats and focus on whole foods containing potent phytonutrients, like tomatoes and soy, in order to experience better overall health and perhaps even decreased cancer risk.


The lecture emphasized a diet high in vegetables, echoing popularized dietary guidelines. Fresh, healthy foods are a staple of any healthy diet, no matter what population or what health conditions you’re considering. In the Mediterranean diet, for instance, there is an emphasis on leafy greens, which naturally contain high levels of phytonutrients. In the paleo diet, there is a focus on fresh fruits and veggies. In the DASH diet, we see the same advice.

Need I continue? Beneficial phytonutrients found in these whole foods can fight oxidative damage that is occurring within the body everyday as a result of our environment and the natural aging process.

antioxidants cancer

I’ve outlined for you how genistein and lycopene work to prevent cancer above (in a highly simplified way!), but beyond their specific mechanisms they can have other protective impacts. Before cancer cells form, maintaining a diet full of healthy foods (with a focus on tomato and soy products) can help diminish oxidative stress in the body. Decreased oxidative stress can decrease inflammation and improve overall well being, which would lead to decreased rates of cancer, theoretically. Phytonutrients are a safe means of decreasing risk and enhancing well being that promotes a healthy lifestyle and improved quality of life. Moral of the story: keep on veggin’ out!

Editors note: Originally featured on http://cravinghappy.com/index.php/2015/12/07/cancer-and-diet-some-basics/

Author Hannah Heitz

Hannah Heitz is a junior at Emory University where she is studying Psychology and Human Health. She has always had an interest in cooking, and her passion for fitness and holistic health has grown during her time at college. Her favorite fitness activity is POP Pilates and loves playing with recipes in the kitchen. Hannah loves positive psychology and hopes to pursue this interest and improving health and fitness of others through future studies! Check out her blog at http://cravinghappy.com.

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