Stomach cancer strikes about one million people each year. It is especially common in other parts of the world – in Asia, in particular and it was something we thought we did not have to worry about in the US. However, recent reports have uncovered a disturbing new trend – a surprising rise in stomach cancer rates among young people in the US.
Stomach cancer often goes undetected. There is no lump to feel and nothing that might show up on an X-ray. By the time it is found, usually with a look into the stomach through an endoscope, it can be very hard to treat.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that food choices can protect you. Some foods reduce the risk that stomach cancer could strike. Other foods are harmful, and we now know which ones they are.
Citrus fruits. It’s no secret that oranges, tangerines and clementines bring us vitamin C; they are among the richest sources of this critical vitamin. Vitamin C does more than help you fight colds. It is also a cancer-fighter. Vitamin C knocks out free radicals, dangerous compounds that arise as a part of body metabolism. Just as cars produce exhaust and factory chimneys release smoke, the chemical reactions in your body produce free radicals that can damage DNA. And DNA damage is the first step in the cancer process. Vitamin C shields you, neutralizing free radicals as they form.
If you were thinking you might have to eat a bushel-full of oranges to protect yourself against cancer, it’s actually much simpler. Just one a day provides measurable benefit.
Citrus fruits also contain lesser-known nutrients, called flavonoids, that inhibit cancer cells from being able to invade your healthy body tissues. Flavonoids are not in the main part of the fruit – you’ll find them in the peel. Adding a little orange zest to your salad does not just make it pretty, it makes it healthier, too. So, citrus fruits help in two ways. Their vitamin C stops cancer from starting in the first place, and their flavonoids inhibit any existing cancer cells from harming you.
Carrots. That bright orange color seen in carrots is beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant. It knocks out free radicals, just as vitamin C does. In fact, the two work as a team. Vitamin C patrols the blood stream, neutralizing free radicals it finds there, while beta-carotene guards the surface of each cell.
Sweet potatoes. These are also rich in beta-carotene, as you can see by their orange hue. But they have another secret ingredient called caffeic acid. No, it is not related to caffeine, coffee or cappuccinos. Caffeic acid cuts off the blood supply to growing tumors.
Allium vegetables. Garlic is an allium vegetable. Ditto for onions, shallots, leeks and scallions. As they sit in produce department bins, they have very little scent. But if you were to take a garlic clove and crush it on your cutting board, its intense aroma quickly emerges. That’s allicin. Allicin is a cancer fighter. It forms from natural compounds in the garlic plant that are separated from each other until it is crushed.
You do not have to eat the whole knob of garlic. Even a clove or two of garlic each day has health benefits. But be careful – crush the garlic first and wait about ten minutes before cooking it to allow the allicin to form. If you are impatient and cook it too soon after crushing, you’ll stop allicin formation prematurely.
Citrus fruits, carrots, sweet potatoes and vegetables from the garlic-family will go a long way toward helping you prevent stomach cancer. But there is even more you can do to protect yourself.
Harmful Foods to Avoid
Processed meat. Meats that are preserved by curing, smoking or the addition of nitrites are called “processed meats,” a group that includes sausage, bacon, ham, bologna, and, yes, even typical hot dogs. They are strongly linked to digestive-tract cancers, including stomach cancer.
While many doctors usually advise ”moderation,” many are now saying that we should avoid processed meats completely, because the evidence linking them to cancer is so convincing. This is especially true for children.
Salty foods. The body needs only a tiny amount of salt for normal body processes, but many of us get far more salt than we need. In excess, salty foods are linked to stomach cancer. Go easy on potato chips, cheese, salty canned products, and the salt shaker.
Helicobacter pylori. The last thing to avoid is not a food, but a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H pylori). This common bacteria can lead to gastritis and ulcers. Many people have it in North America and worldwide. Doctors can easily test you for H pylori, and if you have it, can knock it out with a short course of antibiotics.
By Neal D. Barnard, MD
Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine
President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC