My 5 Favorite Cancer Fighting Foods.

Early-Onset Cancer

Did you know that people born in the 1990s are four times as likely to get colorectal cancer as those born in the 1950s?

I didn’t either.

As you all know, last week, I spent some time in Chicago with my family to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. During that time, the Princess of Wales unraveled the tragic mystery to her recent “disappearance”–a cancer diagnosis (she did not divulge what kind of cancer). When I showed the video to my mother, the first words out of her mouth were:

“But she’s so young….”

Cancer is, without doubt, a frighteningly prevalent disease. It is the #2 killer in the United States (second only to heart disease) and, according to the American Cancer Society, over 1.9 million new cases of cancer were reported in the United States in 2023. In my own family, we have three cancer survivors–that ratio alone is rather disturbing. But, as my mother’s comment demonstrates, cancer is still thought of as a disease for the old, not the young.

While this may have once been true (I remain skeptical), it is certainly no longer accurate to think that cancer is reserved for those over a certain age. According to this study by the Journal BMJ Oncology, the global incidence of cancer under the age of 50 (sometimes dubbed “early onset cancer”) increased by an alarming 79% from 1990 to 2019.

This growing trend in early-onset cancer appears to be tied to certain types of cancer. For instance, Dr. Kimmie Ng, a medical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told The Boston Globe last year, “People born in 1990 have over double the risk of getting colon cancer compared to those born in 1950. And quadruple the risk of getting rectal cancer.”

Food As Medicine.

What does this mean for us all at home?

“Food is medicine” is often thrown around in plant-based wellness circles. But it wasn’t until recently that I learned that it also happens to be a common aphorism in Korea. For centuries, the Buddhist nuns living on the Korean peninsula have prepared their sumptuous meals on the belief that the food they consumed and shared should be designed to nourish and heal.

For clarity, lest I receive 23 messages in my inbox about how I’m an idiot, I’m not saying that medicine isn’t medicine too. I’m also not saying that eating broccoli everyday is going to cure cancer. I’m simply saying that diet can and should play a role in anyone’s plan to live the healthiest and longest life they can.

However, the truth is, it’s not always easy to negotiate health priorities with everything else that crops up on a daily basis–utility bills, the mortgage, school tuition, car-pool arrangements, basketball practice, math homework, really bad traffic. It is unnerving how often I’ve seen my own brother and sister-in-law succumb to my nephew’s unwillingness to eat anything other than chicken nuggets and cheesy pasta, giving me a front-row seat to how quickly these battles are fought and lost on the dizzying stage of daily-lifedom and parenthood.

Commit to Eating Out Less.

Even in my own home–as a plant-based recipe developer and cook–we’ve often given into the day’s exigencies, ordering in from the local Thai place, a vegan burger shop, the plant-based pasta eatery we love. The thing with restaurant food is that you often have no idea how much “stuff” they put into the recipes. We forget that their job isn’t to make you not die. It’s to make you come back for as long as you’re alive.

About two months ago, after a rather disappointing take-out meal from the aforementioned Thai place, Anthony and I committed to eating in as much as possible. I learned, to my shame, that I was eating out far more often than the average American. Thus, for over 30 days, we ate every single meal at home. A habit was born and we felt great about it. But after that first month, I wanted to take our habit to the next level–not just eat at home, but make sure that each meal we ate was designed to help us live longer.

Having read How Not To Die about 17 times, I already knew a lot of the basics: fiber, fiber, and more fiber. Plus turmeric. I also knew that we had to significantly ratchet back our reliance on oil (even extra virgin olive oil!) and salt (this is a hard one for me…!). It was daunting, at first, but over time, I developed a few tricks that have made dinner time not just a fun challenge, but a delicious one.

My 5 Favorite Cancer Fighting Foods.

Cutting down on oil and salt hasn’t been easy, per se, but it hasn’t been that hard. That said, I always think it’s much more palatable to think of health in terms of what to add before you start identifying those things you need to cut. To that end, the following are five foods that I’ve been trying to add to our meals every single day:


Other than soybeans, legumes are not really a staple of the Korean diet. But given the overwhelming body of evidence regarding the health benefits of beans, we’ve been incorporating lentils, black beans, garbanzo beans, and all other manner of legumes into our daily diet. According to the American Institute of Cancer Research, the phenolic acids the body forms in digesting pulses (beans, peas, and lentils) “increase cells’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory defenses against damage that could lead to cancer in cell and animal studies.” Legumes are also a fiber-filled source of protein–it’s a great way to increase both your protein and your fiber with every bite.


I was not a big spinach fan for a long time, but Popeye was onto something with his love of this leafy green. Spinach contains carotenoids, which “act as antioxidants themselves and stimulate the body’s own antioxidant defenses, decreasing free radical damage to DNA that can lead to cancer.” (AICR.) My favorite way to eat spinach these days comes directly from my mom: boiled, drained, and dressed with just a smidgeon of low sodium soy sauce.

Sweet Potatoes.

Unlike spinach, sweet potatoes were not a hard sell for me. If you’ve read my book, then you know the role that the sweet potato has played in my mother’s story and thus my own story. But I was absolutely floored when I discovered that the protein contained in a sweet potato “markedly inhibits proliferation, migration and invasion of human colorectal cancer.” (World Journal of Gastroenterology.) As I mentioned above, folks born after 1990 are four times as likely to get diagnosed with colorectal cancer than those born in the 1950s. Who knew that eating a sweet potato a day could decrease those odds?


Strangely enough, oats have been getting a little beaten up in the media and wellness influencer space. But after doing a little digging around, it’s pretty clear why oatmeal continues to hold a spot on the healthy tabletop. Not only is it filled with beta-glucan, a soluble fiber with the proven ability to reduce harmful cholesterol, but it appears to have anti-cancer properties as well. These days, I’ve been switching out my brown rice for old fashioned rolled oats a couple times a week and it’s been easy peasy!

Mung Bean Sprouts.

I’ve been eating mung bean sprouts basically my entire life. My grandma used to make me trim them growing up (one of my least favorite ways to “help” in the kitchen). It turns out that mung bean sprouts have been shown to significantly inhibit the growth of colorectal cancer cells, and possibly even breast cancer cells. My favorite way to cook mung beans is to throw them in the same pot of boiling water I cooked my spinach in–saves water, time, and makes cleanup easy! I dress them the same way as the boiled spinach–with just a couple drops of low sodium soy sauce. So good!

This Week’s Recipe Inspo.

Now that I’ve regaled you with my 5 favorite cancer fighting foods, here’s a recipe that has them all!

Almost Done Bibim Oats

What I’m…

Watching. Ok. We finally caved into the hype and started watching This is Us. I’d seen so many social media posts during the pandemic regarding this drama and was worried it would be too depressing. So far, it’s been quite the opposite. Sure, a few tears here and there, but much more laughter! The writing is decent, the acting is fine (I know, not the superlatives typically contained in this space), but it all comes together in quite a satisfying way. If you haven’t watched, give it a whirl!

Reading. I am so excited about this book by Carleigh Bodrug and finally got my hands on an early copy! Like her first NYT bestseller, Plant You, this new book, Scrappy Cooking, has a bunch of beautiful recipes but also a TON of helpful information about no-waste cooking. Scrappy Cooking comes out on April 2, but pre-order your copy now so that you can get started on Day 1!!

Using. My new favorite purchase is a miniature trash receptacle. I know, random, right? But I really like to keep a clean, uncluttered desktop and this small little trash can is not only adorable, it guards against small wrappers, apple cores, or unneeded post-it notes from littering my desk. I now have a few of these strategically located (bathroom, makeup vanity) and it’s done wonders at keeping my spaces mess-free!

Parting Thoughts.

My father is now 80 years old; my mother is turning 75 in just a few months. While they are relatively healthy (my father’s prostate cancer seems to be under control), it grows ever more important to me that they do all the things they can to maximize their health.

Luckily, my father is a naturally athletic person–he’s been playing tennis and golf pretty much his entire adult life. And when he goes golfing, he refuses to rent a golf cart, which means he’s lugging around his clubs for all 18 holes. His diet undertook a massive overhaul when he was diagnosed with cancer back in 2016–he eats far less meat and fried foods, no alcohol, and goes out of his way to incorporate fiber and heart-healthy fats (avocados and nuts) on a daily basis.

My mother has always been petite, but even she’s gotta watch her diet to stave off bad cholesterol. Unfortunately, her arthritis and clumsiness (she will fall over a twig) make regular physical activity a challenge. We try to get her out on walks as much as possible, while keeping an eye on what she’s eating. Lately, she’s been really into yogurt, avocado, and oatmeal (not necessarily all at once, though I wouldn’t rule it out…!).

All this “health stuff” remains theoretical until someone you love succumbs to an illness you didn’t see coming, suffers an injury that just won’t heal, or simply starts to age in a way that looks a little scary. The universe’s big joke, of course, is that it feels so not-urgent when we are young and actually able to do something to prevent some of these chronic illnesses.

I’ve found that sometimes the best way to think about health is to start with home. What are the things you love to do? Who are the people you love to see? What are the foods you love to eat? And then ask, is there any way I can bring some of those things, some of those people, some of those foods along with me on my journey towards health?

I made Bibim-Oatmeal because I wanted to prove to myself that “health” doesn’t need to be intimidating, foreign, or bland.

It can be nostalgic, safe, and full of flavor for all the people you love.

Wishing you all the best,

Comments And Questions

Almost Done Bibim Oats

April 1, 2024

Join The Discussion

  1. Sid says:

    Very informative and thoughtful newsletter. Never too early to take care of ourselves and mitigate the risks as best we can.

  2. jacquie says:

    thanks for the informative post. Any chance of another cookbook coming out featuring recipes with are more in line with a SOS way of eating? i would like to see what creative spins you could put on them.

    • Joanne Molinaro says:

      Hi Jacquie! The book that’ll come out next will not be SOS free, as this is something we’re newer to (just started a few weeks ago). That said, I’m hoping that over the next few years, I can really stock up on a bunch of inventive, Korean-y recipes that are SOS compliant, share them here, and save a whole bunch for book 3 😉

  3. Bette says:

    You mentioned reading How Not do Die, but didn’t call out the author, Dr. Greger, or his fantastic work at — all free to the public. Dr. Greger asks himself, “Can I add beans to this?” and I’ve adopted it as my mantra, too. Chickpeas end up in a wide variety of dishes in my house, and each is surprisingly delicious. Who knew ramen or lasagna could benefit from adding legumes, LOL??!

    • Anthony Molinaro says:

      We are HUGE fans of Dr. Greger’s work and of Thanks for mentioning it! And Joanne said she started adding beans to her Kimchi Chigae thanks to him. Anyway, an amazing resource that we visit frequently.

    • Joanne Molinaro says:

      Dr. Greger is my hero. He and Dr. Chutkan (The Microbiome Solution) have both changed my life!!! So grateful for their work and YES–we’ve been trying to find ways to sneak beans and turmeric into everything! Next up–lentil jeon!! 😉

      • Bette says:

        So happy to see both your and Anthony’s replies! I love Dr. Greger, to the point where there’s some family eye-rolling when I start sentences with, “Dr. Greger says…” He really shows us the power of one (granted, brilliant) person to make a difference in the world. Thanks so much for highlighting his work!

  4. Molly B. says:

    I love your newsletters! I get excited when I see them pop up in my inbox! You’re such a great story teller. This week you touched on exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately, which is going more natural and homemade really focusing on the Whole Foods and less of what I add to it! If you ever write a book I’d be one of the first people to pre-order! I of course already own your cookbook : )

    • Joanne Molinaro says:

      Thank you so so much Molly!! it’s always so lovely to hear from my newsletter fam. 😉 I think a lot of ppl are thinking about this subject these days, with so much of the news dominated by disease, illness, and death. It can be quite depressing and overwhelming, which is all the more reason we should look to add a bit more color into our lives and onto our plates. <3 As a non-cook-book, maybe...! I have so many ideas for one, but not enough time!!!

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