The Power of Plants: Bioactive Compounds and Cancer Risk Reduction

A black woman in sportswear stands in a room filled with plants. She holds a water bottle in her hands.

Many of us know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer or we may have been diagnosed ourselves. According to the American Cancer Society’s Global Cancer Facts & Figures (2018), cancer is the second-leading cause of death worldwide following cardiovascular diseases. There are hundreds of types of cancer, each originating from different cells or tissues within the body. Some common types include breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal (colon and rectal) cancer, pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, and liver cancer, among others. This list represents just a fraction of the different types of cancer. Cancer can develop in any part of the body, and its classification is based on the specific cells affected and their characteristics. It doesn’t have a single cause; it arises from the interaction of factors ranging from the genetic to the environmental. 

A 2022 National Foundation for Cancer Research article asks what impacts cancer risk more: genetic predisposition or healthy living? The research findings may surprise you. They suggest that healthy habits can potentially reduce our risk—even with a genetic predisposition to the disease. So, while genetics plays a role in determining our susceptibility to cancer, lifestyle factors, including diet, also significantly influence the development and progression of cancer. This is significant not only because many of us have a genetic risk for at least one type of cancer but also because it empowers us to take charge of our health.

Apples, strawberries, blueberries, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables on a dark wood table.

Dietary Factors and Cancer Risk

Research suggests that a healthy diet can help lower the risk of several types of cancer. As expected, there are things that increase our risk—and so should be consumed in moderation or avoided, and those we should seek to include in our diet. In the case of the former, processed and red meats have been linked to an increased risk of colorectal and other cancers. Limiting the intake of these meats and opting for lean protein sources, such as poultry, fish, legumes, and plant-based proteins, is recommended. Another risk relates to alcohol consumption. Excessive alcohol consumption has been associated with an increased risk of various cancers, including those of the liver, breast, colorectal, and esophagus. If you choose to drink alcohol, it is advised to do so in moderation or avoid it altogether.

In the case of foods that benefit us, dietary factors associated with reduced risk of cancer include hydration, healthy fats, antioxidant-rich foods, and plant-based foods. 

  • Staying adequately hydrated by drinking sufficient water throughout the day is important for overall health. It is recommended to limit sugary beverages and prioritize water as the primary choice of hydration.
  • Choosing healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds, and reducing the consumption of saturated and trans fats, may have a positive impact on cancer risk. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in certain plant sources such as walnuts and pumpkins seeds, also exhibit anti-inflammatory properties and have been associated with a reduced risk of some cancers. 
  • Including antioxidant-rich foods, such as berries, citrus fruits, leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables, in your diet can help neutralize harmful free radicals and reduce oxidative stress, which is implicated in cancer development. 
  • Consuming a predominantly plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts has been linked to a decreased risk of various cancers. These foods are typically high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, which possess anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may help protect against cancer.

You may have noticed the predominance of plants in the foods that reduce the risk of cancer. The power of plants is often overlooked, yet through the consumption of plant-based foods, our bodies can absorb certain beneficial compounds that can act as natural remedies for a variety of ailments. These bioactive compounds can have a significant impact on our overall health and well-being. 

A glass bowl of whole almonds.

Plants, Bioactive Compounds and Cancer

Bioactive compounds are a type of chemical found in various plants (fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds) that have the potential to positively impact our health. They can possess a range of biological activities, Bioactive compounds are not essential nutrients, but they have been shown to have a range of beneficial effects on the body, including including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anticancer, cardioprotective, neuroprotective, and immune-enhancing activities. They interact with specific molecules or pathways in the body, influencing various physiological processes and contributing to overall health and well-being. They are currently being researched for their potential in improving cardiovascular health, and preventing chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

Some common examples of bioactive compounds include lycopene, resveratrol, lignan, tannins, and indoles. While research is ongoing, several bioactive compounds have shown promising results in laboratory studies, animal models, and some human studies. Here are a few examples:

Here are a few examples of bioactive compounds and their health benefits:

1. Polyphenols: Found in fruits, vegetables, tea and cacao, polyphenols are powerful antioxidants that help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body. These compounds have been found to possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which can help protect against cellular damage and reduce the risk of certain cancers, including colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers. Studies show that polyphenols may even block tumor growth and kill cancer cells. Cacao is a potent polyphenol source as are tree nuts like almonds, cashews, pecans, and walnuts — especially when they are raw or minimally processed.

2. Carotenoids: These pigments give vibrant colors to fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, tomatoes, spinach, and sweet potatoes. Carotenoids, including beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein, are pigments found in colorful fruits and vegetables like carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and leafy greens. They exhibit antioxidant properties and have been associated with a lower risk of certain cancers, such as lung, prostate, and gastrointestinal cancers.

3. Sulforaphane: Sulforaphane is a bioactive compound found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and kale. It has been investigated for its potential cancer-preventive properties. Sulforaphane has shown the ability to inhibit cancer cell growth, promote detoxification of harmful substances, and reduce inflammation, suggesting a potential protective effect against certain cancers like breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers.

4. Resveratrol: Resveratrol is a bioactive compound found in grapes, berries, and peanuts. It has been studied for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, as well as its potential to inhibit cancer cell growth and promote programmed cell death. While more research is needed, resveratrol has shown promise in laboratory and animal studies for reducing the risk of certain cancers, such as colon, breast, and prostate cancers.

5. Curcumin:  Curcumin is a bioactive compound derived from turmeric, and is commonly used in curry dishes. It has been studied for its strong anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticancer properties. While more research is needed, curcumin shows promise in potentially reducing the risk of various cancers, including colorectal, breast, lung, and pancreatic cancers.

It's important to note that the effectiveness and specific mechanisms of bioactive compounds in preventing or treating cancer are still being investigated. Additionally, the bioavailability and optimal dosage of these compounds for cancer prevention are subjects of ongoing research. Therefore, while consuming foods rich in bioactive compounds is generally considered beneficial for overall health, it is recommended to follow a balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods. If you have a genetic predisposition to cancer, healthcare professionals and registered dietitians can provide personalized recommendations regarding cancer prevention and treatment. 

Ground cacao powder fills a silver spoon. Part of chocolate bar pokes through the mound of dark brown powder.


While no single food can prevent cancer on its own, incorporating a variety of nutrient-dense, plant-based foods into your diet is an effective way to reduce your risk.  The power of plants and their bioactive compounds cannot be underestimated when it comes to boosting our overall well-being. These compounds have been found to have numerous health benefits, ranging from reducing inflammation and oxidative stress to improving brain function and preventing chronic diseases. The fact that these compounds are naturally occurring in plants means that they are easily accessible and can be incorporated into our diets through the consumption of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. So next time you're planning your meals, think about incorporating some nuts and cruciferous vegetables for an extra boost of cancer-fighting power!


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