Part 3: What’s On and Off Your Anti-Cancer Platter? Flavonoids & The Mighty Italian Triumverate

colorful plants for an anti-cancer dietNow that you’re no longer a “Proteinaholic,” how do you go about selecting the most nutritious plants among all those shades of red, purple and green? 

My first vote goes to “The Mighty Italian Triumvirate,” a combo of  onions, dill and capers (rinsed, of course).  Like the rulers of ancient Rome, the three work together to keep systems in tiptop shape.

–“Abundance” courtesy of Peggy Ann Turner —

Minding their Ks and Qs

Onions, dill and capers, a cousin of the holy crucifer family of plants, are all rich in two key phytonutrients—kaempferol and quercetin.  Both K and Q are members of a particular class of flavonoids, called flavonols, and share a similar chemical structure. Boring, eh? The clencher is all about anti-cancer alchemy:

In normal cells, kaempferol and quercetin act as anti-oxidants and neutralize free radicals of oxygen, which would otherwise damage cells.  But in cancer cells, K and Q behave entirely differently. Instead, they act as pro-oxidants, creating free radicals of oxygen, which in turn damages cancer cells and forces them to self-destruct. (Curcumin in turmeric, EGCG in green tea and melatonin also do that.)

How can nutrients behave so differently depending on their environment? The differences in anti-cancer alchemy, according to Dr. Keith Block, have to do with copper, both a metal and a mineral.  

Cancer cells sequester lots of copper; as a mineral, it helps them grow and spread. But as a metal, copper (like iron) fuels the process of oxidation. 

Consider a fancy copper roof that turns into an exquisite verdi-green. The green patina produced as copper ages is simply copper oxidizing– rusting in the presence of oxygen. As metals rust, they produce free radicals of oxygen that damage cells . 

Because of their chemical structure, the flavonols kaempferol and quercetin bind to copper in cancer cells and ignite a fire of free radicals, pushing damaged cancer cells down the path to suicide.    

At least that’s what happens in the petri dish. 

There’s more. In Part 1 of this series, we talked about scientists discovering that all cancer cells share a common trait: They all metabolize fuels for growth in a faulty manner.  Many cancer cells suck up glucose and palmitate, a saturated fatty acid.  (Yes, coconut oil has some palmitate.)

Kaempferol and quercetin may be the antidote. Scientists looking at how cells behave in the lab have found that K and Q inhibit many different types of cancer cells from using both glucose and fatty acids as fuels.  In a recent study, researchers looking at ER+ breast cancer cells singled out kaempferol for “potently inhibiting”  glucose.  Another group found it also works on cervical cancer cells. 

And many other studies point to the ability of K and Q to tamp down inflammation and interfere with the inflammatory cell signalling process that underlies all modern diseases of abundance, cancer included.  

So what’s the problem? Scientists are still trying to understand how each of those thousands of phytonutrients work in your human body. How bioavailable is each phyto–that is, available to your body to be used? What does your body do with it?  

New research suggests that kaempferol and quercetin work together, synergistically, to improve bioavailability–a concept often measured by the amount of the nutrients in your blood.  But we may be in for a paradigm shift in the way scientists look at bioavailability.   

“This is very, very, very exciting stuff,” says nutrition scientist Dr. Mary Ann Lila, describing the new studies showing that phytonutrients get you right in your microbiome, the important immune system in your gut. 

Let’s say you’ve just tried the messipe for Indalian onions (with capers, dill and my turmeric spice mix.) Once the mush reaches your small intestines, nutrients seep into your blood. Digestion is considered complete.

What remains behind is waste product–fiber, ultimately poop–perhaps the most useful waste known to humankind, if fed properly. The new research that has Lila swooning shows that phytonutrients from plants help produce good bacteria in your gut. Fiber ferments those good bugs into fatty acids that fight inflammation and disease.    

Fiber and phytonutrients –That’s the secret to the power of plants. Fermentable fiber is crucial. And among all those thousands of phytos, flavonols rule. 

Now will you try my Indalian Onions?  

 Sources of Ks and Qs

If you’re planning to adorn your platter with nutrient-dense “nutritarian” foods (concept courtesy of Dr. Joel Fuhrman), then start with the Mighty Italian Triumverate–dill, capers and onions– and other sources of Ks and Qs.  Here’s a guide I put together for you based on the USDA flavonoid database.  

K & Q:  broccoli, capers, cloves, dill, kale, onion, watercress 

Kaempferol: arugula, caraway seeds, chives, garden cress, cumin, endive, leeks, mustard greens, turnip greens, saffron 

Quercetin: abundant in lots of plants

  • vegetables: wild arugula, asparagus, celery, okra, radicchio, shallots
  • herbs and spices: cilantro/coriander, cloves, cumin, fennel leaves, juniper berries, dried Mexican oregano
  • peppers: hot yellow wax, hot green chili, jalapeno, serrano
  • berries: especially elderberries and cranberries, and lots of others
  • other fruits: apple skins, apricots, lemon juice, Black Diamond plums, tomatoes
  • grains, legumes, nuts, seeds: buckwheat, chia, quinoa, black-eyed peas, kidney, fava beans

Remember: Phytonutrients concentrate in the outer layers, so peel onions ever so slightly. Or if you’re feeling gutsy, chew on some skins–clean ones, of course! 





8 thoughts on “Part 3: What’s On and Off Your Anti-Cancer Platter? Flavonoids & The Mighty Italian Triumverate

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