Superfoods That Lower Lung Cancer Risk

It's believed that adding certain foods that prevent lung cancer to your everyday diet can lower your risk of the disease. That may not immediately come to mind, as quitting smoking is at the top of the list when it comes to risk factors for lung cancer. But research shows that simple changes to your diet can help, and doing all you can to mitigate your risk is worthwhile.

It all starts by incorporating these foods into your daily meals.

Apples

One of the many health secrets packed into an apple is that every bite fills you with flavonoids. These phytonutrients (plant chemicals) are found in almost all fruits and vegetables. They're powerful antioxidants, offering anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting benefits.

Research has shown that the more flavonoids you consume, the lower your risk for lung cancer. In fact, an increase in flavonoid intake of 20 milligrams (mg) per day (about one or two apples, depending on their size) may reduce your chances of developing lung cancer by 10%.

Certain types of flavonoids are specifically associated with lowering the risk of lung cancer, including quercetin and kaempferol. Never-smokers seem to benefit the most from the protective power of these compounds.

An apple's peel (especially if it's a dark variety) has the highest concentration of flavonoids, so be sure to wash and eat the whole fruit for the biggest health boost.

Garlic

Dating back to Hippocrates (who coined the term cancer in the 4th century B.C.), garlic has been seen as an herb with extraordinary medicinal qualities. It was long believed to be able to protect against cancer, but only recently have doctors discovered why.

Garlic actually prevents cancer cells from growing by increasing the activity of natural killer (NK) cells and macrophages (types of white blood cells that are important for immunity).

A study in China found that people who consumed raw garlic two or more times per week dropped their risk of lung cancer by 44%.

Eating garlic raw seems to be the best way to take advantage of its protective power since cooking or pickling it breaks down beneficial compounds.

In the Kitchen

If you're going to cook with garlic, mince it and leave it open to the air for 10 minutes before adding it to your food or sautéing. This allows chemical reactions to take place that enhance garlic's anti-cancer qualities.

Onions

Onions, like garlic, belong to a family of vegetables known as allium vegetables, which were long used in folk medicine and are now widely studied by scientists for their anti-oxidant properties and the fact that they seem to interfere with the development of cancer cells.

Consuming high amounts of onion has been shown to reduce the risk of lung cancer. The onion is another food that contains the anti-cancer flavonoid quercetin.

Researchers are looking at how to harness this power by creating onion extracts, which could easily deliver a large potent dose of onion's benefits. Meanwhile, you can take advantage of the anti-cancer properties by adding onions to a wide variety of daily dishes.

Broccoli

Glucosinates and other compounds compounds in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli counter the deadly effects of environmental carcinogens and can potentially reduce the likelihood that you will develop lung cancer.

Among smokers, who have the highest risk of lung cancer, cruciferous vegetables may decrease the likelihood of lung cancer by 32% to 55%, depending on the amount regularly consumed.

If you don't care for broccoli, there are many alternative crucifers you can try:

  • Cauliflower
  • Radishes
  • Arugula
  • Bok choy
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Watercress
  • Horseradish
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Rutabaga
  • Wasabi
  • Turnips

Fish

Frequent fish consumption has several health benefits, including a 21% reduction in lung cancer risk, according to one study. However, most researchers agree that more investigation is needed to confirm the correlation between fish and lower rates of lung cancer.

Meanwhile, there is stronger evidence that omega-3 fatty acids in fish do protect against colon cancer, which offers some hope that similar connections will be found between fish high in omega-3s (e.g., salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and albacore tuna) and lower risks for lung cancer.

Omega-3 fatty acids are already proven to help protect you against heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, so it's often recommended you consume fish twice a week (once a week for pregnant women). This can help you maintain your general health, which plays into your body's overall ability to fight cancer.

While omega-3 fatty acid supplements are available, the American Heart Association recommends you get these nutrients directly from foods unless you already have heart disease (in which case adding supplements is recommended).

Red Peppers

Red bell peppers, as well as red chili peppers, contain a phytochemical called capsaicin—part of what gives these foods a spicy little kick. It was found that capsaicin suppresses the development of lung cancer in Swiss mice after they were exposed to a carcinogen. Capsaicin may do this by inducing apoptosis, a process by which abnormal cells are eliminated before they can divide and become a cancerous tumor.

While animal study findings cannot be directly applied to humans, red bell and red chili peppers are a nice way to potentially protect your health while adding excellent flavor, a bit of spice, and a splash of color to your diet.

Green Tea

Green tea contains a powerful antioxidant, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), that has been shown to offer significant defense against cancer. The benefit may not be limited to lung cancer, though.

In a study that looked at nearly 100,000 people, green tea was associated not only with a reduction in the incidence of lung cancer but of cancer overall.

Tea Tip

Adding a touch of lemon may increase the absorption of important compounds in green tea, whereas adding cream (or other dairy products) may bind with these compounds and negate their positive effects.

Spinach

Spinach and other green leafy vegetables are rich in vitamin C, carotenoids, lutein, folic acid, vitamin A, and vitamin K. Several studies have found that this super-nutritious food reduces the risk of lung cancer.

It's especially noticeable in smokers, who normally are very susceptible to cell mutations that can cause lung cancer but who seem to be protected from this problem when they eat plenty of helpings of spinach and similar vegetables.

Spinach is also rich in the nutrient lutein. Lutein is often associated with healthy vision but also acts as an antioxidant in the body, fighting off free radicals generated by cancer-causing substances in our environment.

(A note of caution: Those who attempt to get lutein via a supplement may have an increased rather than decreased risk of developing lung cancer.)

Chicken

Red meat, especially processed meats, has repeatedly been linked to higher rates of cancer, including a 22% increased risk for lung cancer per 100 grams of red meat consumed per day. 

The inverse seems to be true for chicken, however. High poultry intake is associated with a 10% decreased risk of lung cancer. 

The American Institute of Cancer Research recommends avoiding processed meats. To gain the best benefit from chicken as a source of protein, look for organic and minimally processed poultry, which should lower your exposure to carcinogens that can enter food during processing.

Wheat Germ

In a clinical study looking at over 72,000 Chinese female non-smokers, it was found that women who were exposed to high doses of sidestream smoke in the home and workplace were 47% less likely to develop lung cancer if they consumed a diet high in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol).

This study also demonstrated that vitamin E supplements do not provide the same protection. In fact, taking supplements to boost vitamin E intake actually increased the risk of lung cancer.

Wheat germ is one of the highest sources of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) you can choose. Others include sunflower seeds and almonds.

Butternut Squash

Butternut squash contains a substance called beta-cryptoxanthin that has been repeatedly found to lower the risk of lung cancer. By eating foods like butternut squash, it's estimated that your risk of lung cancer decreases between 15% and 40%.

While some studies showed greater effects than others, a diet rich in foods containing this substance appears to be particularly helpful for people who smoke.

Again, as with vitamin E, those who attempt to get this ingredient via a supplement may have an increased rather than decreased risk of developing lung cancer.

Beta-cryptoxanthin may also be found in tangerines, persimmons, and the spices cayenne pepper, paprika, and chili powder.

Spices

In addition to whole foods, spices are important to a cancer-fighting diet.

Tumeric, a popular Middle Eastern spice, has been repeatedly praised for its anti-cancer properties, including its ability to help stave off lung cancer.

It's been found that spices such as rosemary have several health benefits and are inversely related to the risk of developing lung cancer. Researchers have looked at how extracts of these spices might be used to support lung health.

Rosemary, along with sage, oregano, and other Mediterranean spices, contains a compound called carnisol, which attacks several of the pathways needed by abnormal cells to become cancerous. Regularly adding a little of these to your food may help you avoid lung cancer.

A Word From Verywell

Even if you've already been diagnosed with cancer, it's not too late to take these suggestions to heart. Improving your diet may help slow the spread of cancer or lower the odds that cancer will return—an important thing to consider in light of lung cancer's high risk of recurrence.

The American Cancer Society offers specific dietary guidelines that may help prevent lung cancer. Research supporting many of these suggestions is ongoing, but they at least provide a good basis for beginning to take control of your health and preventing lung cancer. 

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