Foods That Fight Cancer™
Whole grains are hearty, flavorful and filling. Choose from brown rice, oatmeal, corn, whole-wheat bread, barley, bulgur, kasha, millet, sorghum, farro and more. The fiber-rich bran, nutrient-packed germ and starchy endosperm are all natural parts that remain in whole grains. Refined grains lack the bran and germ, while whole grains provide more nutrition, fiber and health-promoting phytochemicals.
What's in Whole Grains?
Whole grains are good sources of fiber and magnesium and provide some protein. Individual whole grains vary; several types are also good sources of manganese, thiamin, nicain, vitamin B-6 and/or selenium.
A variety of healthful compounds in whole grains combine to make these foods high in potential anti-cancer activity.
- Whole Grains – the Whole Truth
- Get the Facts on Fiber
- What Is Quinoa and What Would I Do with It? - from AICR HealthTalk
- Go with Whole Grains - from Healthy Kids Today, Prevent Cancer Tomorrow
- I'd Like to Eat More Whole Grains - How can I Limit Sodium? - from AICR HealthTalk
- The New American Plate: Beans and Whole Grains
Full Glossary for Foods That Fight Cancer
The Cancer Research
The wide variety of whole grains makes it challenging to pinpoint how this food group reduces cancer risk, which it does. All whole grains contain fiber. There are several ways fiber may lower risk, including diluting potential carcinogens and promoting healthful bacteria growth. Whole grains may also help with weight control; excess body fat increases the risk of eight cancers. Brown rice, oatmeal and other whole grains are also good sources of selenium, a mineral that has antioxidant properties.
Each type of whole grain also contains a variety of phytochemicals, many being studied for their cancer protective effects.
What Current Evidence Shows: AICR/WCRF Expert Report and its Updates (CUP)
|Whole Grains contain fiber. After a systematic review of the global scientific literature, AICR/WCRF weighed the strength of the evidence linking these factors to lower risk for cancers.|
|Source: Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective and reports from the Continuous Update Project.|
|Diets high in:||CONVINCINGLY lower risk of the following cancers:|
|Foods high in dietary fiber||colorectal|
Open Areas of Investigation: Laboratory Research
The insoluble fiber in whole grains does not get digested or dissolve in water. This dietary fiber seems to protect against colorectal cancer by adding bulk and diluting any harmful substances in the gut, speeding out their passage. In animal studies, both soluble and insoluble fiber and resistant starch support growth of healthful bacteria in the colon. These bacteria produce compounds called short chain fatty acids that promote healthy colon cells and stimulate self-destruction of abnormal cells. In animal studies, lignans decrease growth factors and markers of inflammation.
Other compounds in whole grains - including protease inhibitors, phytic acid, phenolic acids and saponins - have shown effects on cell signaling, gene expression and inflammation to slow the development of several cancers.
Open Areas of Investigation: Human Studies
In the 1990s, a series of population studies suggested that greater whole grain consumption was linked with lower risk of many cancers, including stomach, breast, and prostate. Since that time, research has focused primarily on whole grains' link to reducing breast and colorectal cancers, along with its link to weight control.
There is a wide variety of whole grains, and the mixed results seen in population studies of whole grains’ effects on inflammation, insulin resistance and weight may reflect the varying fiber and nutrient content of different grains, different effects of intact cooked whole grains (such as oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa) compared to whole-grain products made from milled flours (such as bread and breakfast cereals), or differences in individual starting points regarding weight and health.
Colorectal: AICR/WCRF's analysis of population studies links greater consumption of whole grains and foods high in dietary fiber to a decrease in colorectal cancer. For fiber specifically, each 10 gram increase in dietary fiber links to 10% lower risk of colorectal cancer. The protective link seen with whole grains was beyond what could be expected based on dietary fiber. Approximately 6 ounces of whole grains reduced colorectal cancer risk 21 percent. A later analysis of the research found that about approximately half that amount may provide about that same protection.
Breast: Population studies on breast cancer related to dietary fiber and whole grains are more limited and mixed. One analysis of studies ties dietary fiber intake of 25 grams a day and more with lower risk, although this link may vary with the type of breast cancer and type and source of fiber. One study that showed no link did show reduced breast cancer risk among women with the highest blood levels of lignans, a major class of phytoestrogens, which are found in whole grains and other plant foods.
Other Cancers: Individual differences in metabolizing lignans could play a role in how whole grains lower the risk of cancers that are potentially affected by lignans, such as postmenopausal breast and colorectal. For example, within people's colon, individuals differ in converting lignans to enterolactone and other compounds. These compounds are circulated throughout the body and could play a role in lowering risk.
Several population studies link whole grains with lower levels of inflammation and insulin resistance, which links to cancer development. Yet controlled intervention trials are not clear in showing these benefits.
Weight Control: Excess body fat increases risk of nine cancers. Short-term intervention trials, which typically last 3 months or less, have generally shown greater whole-grain consumption has no effect on weight or weight gain. But population studies consistently link greater whole grain consumption with lower body mass index (BMI) and less weight gain over about ten years. Several studies also suggest that consuming whole grains rather than refined grains causes a relatively modest but greater loss of body fat and abdominal fat, especially when whole grains are part of a reduced-calorie diet.
In the Kitchen
- Look for 100% whole grain on the package. Words like multi-grain or wheat do not necessarily mean the product contains whole grains.
- Some examples of whole grains include whole-wheat flour, oats, brown rice (also red or black), corn, whole barley, bulgur, sorghum, whole farro, millet and teff.
- On the ingredients list, look for the term whole or a specific whole grain (such as oats) listed as the first ingredient. If a whole grain is listed first and refined grain is listed after, then a product is mostly whole grain.
- When purchasing cornmeal, polenta or grits, look for whole corn or whole-grain corn. If the package says degermed corn, it is not whole grain.
- You may see products with a Whole Grain Stamp, which signifies a half to a full serving of whole grains per labeled serving.
- Whole grains contain healthful oils that can make them spoil faster than refined grains. Store them in airtight containers in cool places.
- You can store unmilled whole grains, such as brown rice and barley, in a cabinet away from heat and direct light for up to 6 months. They will keep for one year in the freezer.
- You can keep whole-grain flours or cornmeal in the refrigerator or freezer for 2 to 6 months.
- Replace half the white flour with whole-wheat flour in your usual recipes for muffins, quick breads and pancakes. Try whole-wheat pastry flour for a lighter texture.
- For a side dish that takes only about 15 to 20 minutes (or less) try grains with shorter cooking times like bulgur, whole-wheat couscous, quinoa and whole-grain pasta.
- You can also purchase instant or frozen brown rice, which takes less than five minutes to prepare.
- Try wild rice, brown rice, millet or sorghum when you have more time, which takes about 30 to 45 minutes to prepare.
- One cup of dry, unmilled whole grain will yield from 2 1/2 cups to 3 1/2 cups when cooked.
- For grain-based salads, look for wheat berries or rye berries, two forms of wheat and rye you can find in the bulk section.
- Add wild rice, brown rice, sorghum, quinoa, farro or barley to salads and soups: Use your leftover cooked grains in a soup you can heat up quickly, or let the grains cook right in your homemade soup.
Farro Salad Primavera
- 3/4 cup farro
- 3 cups cold water
- 12 small sugar-snap peas
- 5 fresh asparagus spears, in 1-inch pieces
- 10 grape tomatoes, halved length-wise
- 2 Tbsp. finely chopped shallots
- 2 large white mushrooms, stems removed
- 1 lemon
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- Ground black pepper
- 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
In medium saucepan, combine farro with water. Bring to boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook until farro is slightly al dente, about 30 minutes. Drain in colander, then rinse farro under cool water and drain well. Place cooked farro in mixing bowl.
Steam peas and asparagus for 3 minutes. Immediately plunge them into a bowl of ice water to stop cooking and to keep crisp-tender. Drain well and add to farro. Add tomatoes and shallots to farro.
To cube mushrooms, cut one vertically into 6 slices. Holding it together, rotate mushroom 90 degrees and make 5 cuts. Lay resulting matchsticks on their sides and cut crosswise, making cubes. Repeat to cut second mushroom. Add mushrooms to salad. Grate zest from half the lemon and add to salad.
For dressing, squeeze 1 tablespoon juice from lemon into small bowl. Mix in salt until it dissolves. Add 4-5 grinds pepper. Whisk in oil. Pour dressing over salad and toss with fork to combine. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Per serving: 170 calories, 6 g total fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 25 g carbohydrate, 6 g protein 4 g dietary fiber, 300 mg sodium.
Note: If desired, you can assemble salad up to 1 hour before serving, then add dressing at the last minute.
Do You Have a Question? Ask the Expert!
We’ve compiled a list of some of the most common questions we receive in our FAQ below. Have a question about diet and food and cancer prevention? Ask your question using this form. We will post some of the answers to the questions we receive that have the most benefit to the most people.
Ask Your Question
Thank you for your question.
You should get a response from us within 3 business days.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How many servings of whole grains should I be eating?
The amount of whole grains recommended depends upon your age, whether you're a man or woman and how active you are. For example, the government health recommendation for a woman age 31-50 is 3 to 6 daily ounces of whole grains; a man that same age group is 3.5 to 7 daily ounces. For everyone, guidelines recommend at least half of all the grains you eat should be whole grains.
In general, a slice of bread, a half cup of cooked brown rice or half cup of cooked oatmeal is approximately one ounce. Visit the USDA My Plate for more information on recommendations and servings.
I'm worried about eating whole grains because too many carbohydrates will cause me to gain weight, right?
Too many will, but eating almost too much of any one type of food is unhealthy. Research consistently suggests that people who consume diets with plenty of whole grains, such as the Mediterranean eating pattern, have success losing weight and keeping off that weight. There is not one weight-loss approach that works for everyone, but by replacing any grains you do eat with whole grains, you can add in nutrients, fiber and other healthful compounds, while still watching your calories.
Should I buy organic foods whenever possible?
There are many reasons to eat organic foods, but currently, there is no convincing evidence that shows a difference between organic and conventionally grown foods related to cancer risk. Studies show pesticide residues on conventionally grown foods are almost always within safety tolerance limits.
If you are concerned about pesticide residues and can afford to spend more, organic produce may be a choice for you. Eating generous servings of a large variety of veggies and fruits - whether organic or not will benefit your health. The advantages of including more vegetables and fruits in your diet outweigh the potential risks from pesticides.
- Adom, K.K. and R.H. Liu, Antioxidant activity of grains. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 2002. 50(21): p. 6182-7.
- Adom, K.K., M.E. Sorrells, and R.H. Liu, Phytochemicals and antioxidant activity of milled fractions of different wheat varieties. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 2005. 53(6): p. 2297-306.
- Slavin, J., Why whole grains are protective: biological mechanisms. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 2003. 62(1): p. 129-34.
- Jonnalagadda, S.S., et al., Putting the whole grain puzzle together: health benefits associated with whole grains--summary of American Society for Nutrition 2010 Satellite Symposium. The Journal of nutrition, 2011. 141(5): p. 1011S-22S.
- Halvorsen, B.L., et al., Content of redox-active compounds (ie, antioxidants) in foods consumed in the United States. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2006. 84(1): p. 95-135.
- Adlercreutz, H., Can rye intake decrease risk of human breast cancer? Food & nutrition research, 2010. 54.
- Slavin, J., D. Jacobs, and L. Marquart, Whole-grain consumption and chronic disease: protective mechanisms. Nutrition and cancer, 1997. 27(1): p. 14-21.
- Chatenoud, L., et al., Whole grain food intake and cancer risk. International journal of cancer. Journal international du cancer, 1998. 77(1): p. 24-8.
- Larsson, S.C., et al., Whole grain consumption and risk of colorectal cancer: a population-based cohort of 60,000 women. British journal of cancer, 2005. 92(9): p. 1803-7.
- McCullough, M.L., et al., A prospective study of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and colon cancer risk. Cancer causes & control : CCC, 2003. 14(10): p. 959-70.
- Pietinen, P., et al., Diet and risk of colorectal cancer in a cohort of Finnish men. Cancer causes & control : CCC, 1999. 10(5): p. 387-96.
- Schatzkin, A., et al., Dietary fiber and whole-grain consumption in relation to colorectal cancer in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2007. 85(5): p. 1353-60.
- Aune, D., et al., Dietary fibre, whole grains, and risk of colorectal cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMJ, 2011. 343: p. d6617.
- Aune, D., et al., Dietary fiber and breast cancer risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Annals of oncology : official journal of the European Society for Medical Oncology / ESMO, 2012. 23(6): p. 1394-402.
Ferrari, P., et al., Dietary fiber intake and risk of hormonal receptor-defined breast cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2013. 97(2): p. 344-53.
Egeberg, R., et al., Intake of whole grain products and risk of breast cancer by hormone receptor status and histology among postmenopausal women. International journal of cancer. Journal international du cancer, 2009. 124(3): p. 745-50.
Cade, J.E., V.J. Burley, and D.C. Greenwood, Dietary fibre and risk of breast cancer in the UK Women's Cohort Study. International journal of epidemiology, 2007. 36(2): p. 431-8.
Olsen, A., et al., Plasma enterolactone and breast cancer incidence by estrogen receptor status. Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers & prevention : a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, cosponsored by the American Society of Preventive Oncology, 2004. 13(12): p. 2084-9.
Gaskins, A.J., et al., Whole grains are associated with serum concentrations of high sensitivity C-reactive protein among premenopausal women. The Journal of nutrition, 2010. 140(9): p. 1669-76.
Lutsey, P.L., et al., Whole grain intake and its cross-sectional association with obesity, insulin resistance, inflammation, diabetes and subclinical CVD: The MESA Study. The British journal of nutrition, 2007. 98(2): p. 397-405.
Masters, R.C., et al., Whole and refined grain intakes are related to inflammatory protein concentrations in human plasma. The Journal of nutrition, 2010. 140(3): p. 587-94.
Lefevre, M. and S. Jonnalagadda, Effect of whole grains on markers of subclinical inflammation. Nutrition reviews, 2012. 70(7): p. 387-96.
Calder, P.C., et al., Dietary factors and low-grade inflammation in relation to overweight and obesity. The British journal of nutrition, 2011. 106 Suppl 3: p. S5-78.
Montonen, J., et al., Consumption of red meat and whole-grain bread in relation to biomarkers of obesity, inflammation, glucose metabolism and oxidative stress. European journal of nutrition, 2013. 52(1): p. 337-45.
Giacco, R., et al., Effects of rye and whole wheat versus refined cereal foods on metabolic risk factors: a randomised controlled two-centre intervention study. Clinical nutrition, 2013. 32(6): p. 941-9.
Katcher, H.I., et al., The effects of a whole grain-enriched hypocaloric diet on cardiovascular disease risk factors in men and women with metabolic syndrome. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2008. 87(1): p. 79-90.
Andersson, A., et al., Whole-grain foods do not affect insulin sensitivity or markers of lipid peroxidation and inflammation in healthy, moderately overweight subjects. The Journal of nutrition, 2007. 137(6): p. 1401-7.
Karl, J.P. and E. Saltzman, The role of whole grains in body weight regulation. Advances in Nutrition, 2012. 3(5): p. 697-707.
Fogelholm, M., et al., Dietary macronutrients and food consumption as determinants of long-term weight change in adult populations: a systematic literature review. Food & nutrition research, 2012. 56.
Ye, E.Q., et al., Greater whole-grain intake is associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and weight gain. The Journal of nutrition, 2012. 142(7): p. 1304-13.
Pol, K., et al., Whole grain and body weight changes in apparently healthy adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2013. 98(4): p. 872-84.
Kristensen, M., et al., Whole grain compared with refined wheat decreases the percentage of body fat following a 12-week, energy-restricted dietary intervention in postmenopausal women. The Journal of nutrition, 2012. 142(4): p. 710-6.