Scottsdale, Arizona - What we eat plays a key role in keeping us healthy and protecting from major diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. Researchers are studying how certain foods can help enhance health and prevent illness.

Foods such as fruits and vegetables that contain phytochemicals (naturally occurring chemicals made by plants) and antioxidants (man-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage), whole grains with natural fiber, low-fat dairy foods, nuts and oils, and oily fish high in omega-3 fatty acids are now being placed in a new category called functional foods. Functional foods go beyond nutrition and have a positive effect on health.

Functional foods are whole and unprocessed, such as fresh berries, cauliflower or broccoli - or they may have ingredients added to them, such as low-fat yogurt with live cultures.

Specific to cancer, cruciferous vegetables and vegetables in the cabbage family contain phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals, and fiber that are important to your health.

Vegetables in this family include cauliflower, broccoli, kale and others and have been the focus of study for some time.  Here are a few examples of research with functional foods and specific cancer types:

  • Prostate and breast cancer - Evidence shows that eating cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower, can reduce the risk of prostate and breast cancer.
  • Stomach cancer — Scientists are studying a specific component found in cruciferous vegetables called benzyl-isothiocyanate (BITC). It has shown promise in preventing the growth of gastric cancer cells. Additional studies are needed to confirm this in humans.
  • Lung cancer — The Nurses’ Health Study reported that women who ate more than five servings a week of cruciferous vegetables had a lower risk of lung cancer. More studies are needed to confirm this finding as well.

Here are a few tips to add more functional foods to your daily routine:

  • Add more fresh or frozen, ready to use vegetables to soups, salads and casseroles.
  • Eat fruit with every meal. Keep a bowl of fruit on your table. Berries, apples, bananas, oranges, pears and red grapes are a great idea instead of dessert.
  • Begin your day with high-fiber cereal. Aim for 5 grams or more of fiber a serving. Try using wheat bran, ground flaxseed over cereal, yogurt or fruit.
  • Use whole-grain breads and pastas. Look for the wording whole grain as one of the first ingredients and aim for at least 3 grams of fiber a serving.
  • Eat more whole grains and legumes. Make the switch to brown rice or barley, bulgur and quinoa. Add black beans, lentils and kidney beans to dishes.
  • Make your snacks count. Try low-fat popcorn, whole wheat crackers, raw vegetables and fresh fruit instead of high-fat or sugary treats.
  • Go meatless at least once a week. Use lentils, beans, tofu and other sources of protein instead.
  • Add fish to your menu at least twice a week. Fish high in omega 3 fatty acids include tuna, salmon, anchovies, trout, cod and others.