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Cruciferous Vegetables

Cancer’s Worst Enemy & Your Genome’s Best Friend!

Posted by NutritionMax - October 6th, 2014

Eating our 8 - 10 servings of fruits and vegetables is a daily practice we know we should follow in order to optimize our health, but how many of us actually do it, let alone, even 1 or 2?

The answer is, not enough of us. It’s concerning because the American diet is far from abundant in nutrient dense and antioxidant rich foods; particularly high in vitamin C, fiber and phytochemicals, etc.  Our bodies face an inevitable onslaught from environmental pollutants, radiation, impurities in our water supply, toxins in the air and chemicals in the industrial products we purchase. These are compounds that we’re consistently exposed to on a daily basis, so it’s absolutely necessary to shield our DNA from damage and thus cancer.

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Welcome To Cruciferous Vegetables

These vegetables include the cabbage family, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard greens, kale, radish, bok choy, wasabi and Brussels sprouts among others. Cruciferous vegetables exhibit very potent anticancer properties by enhancing your body’s ability detoxify carcinogens and chemicals. It’s the epigenetic effects of these foods that “turn on” tumor suppressor genes and “turn off” genes that promote neoplasms and angiogenesis that make these vegetables so incredibly remarkable for disease prevention.

There is mounting evidence that shows that these vegetables can reduce your risk of various types of cancer in the bladder (1, 6), breast (2), kidney and prostate (3) by 54%. With regard to colorectal cancer specifically, clinical trials have demonstrated that daily consumption of 9 oz. of broccoli and Brussels sprouts reduced colorectal cancer risk by promoting urinary elimination of carcinogens that are engendered by high heat cooked meat (4).

Glucosinolates are compounds that give broccoli and others their potent taste and smell, but they manufacture many crucial phytochemicals that act by inhibiting carcinogenesis by inducing genes through the Nrf2 and AhR biochemical pathways. Additionally, they suppress the pro-inflammatory transcription factor NF-kB, inhibit histone deacetylase and the cytochrome P450 system. In the end, glucosinolates abate DNA oxidative damage; the cornerstone for cancer initiation. Data reveals that glucosinolates exert a 32% reduction in prostate caner (7). Some of these phytochemicals include isothiocyanates and indoles; two compounds derived from glucosinolates that specifically induce cellular apoptosis or cell death and prevent undesirable cell proliferation (5).

Indole-3-carbinol (I3C) is one glucosinolate metabolite that has profound effects on breast cancer prevention by protecting DNA damage. In one study, I3C showed the ability to decrease DNA damage in breast tissue by 92%, in white blood cells by 82%, in liver tissue by 69% and in colorectal tissue by 67% (8). I3C and another powerful isothiocyanate, sulforaphane found in broccoli, are able to down-regulate estrogen-receptors in breast tissue and thyroid tissue (12).  In a randomized controlled trial examining patients with early stages of cervical cancer, 200 mg of daily I3C proved to eliminate the cancer in 50% of the patients over a 12-week period (9).  What this demonstrates is I3C’s ability to block sex hormones like estrogen that some carcinomas like breast cancer thrive on to proliferate and survive. I3C provides an alternative or supplemental addition to combat the adverse side effects from conventional allopathic medicine and chemotherapy that are commonly used in cancer treatment.

For males, another metabolite formed in cruciferous vegetables; specifically in watercress, called phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC) works much like I3C does in the female reproductive system, by interfering with testosterone from binding to androgen receptors in prostate and colorectal cells (10, 13). Even more astonishing is its enzyme blocking abilities within cancer cells and its direct epigenetic effects on DNA by “turning on” the p53 tumor suppressor gene (14). Similarly, another metabolite, 3,3’-diidolylmethane (DIM) shares the same properties as PEITC, but with the added benefit of estrogen inhibition (11). Its functionality is equivalent to many cruciferous vegetable derived glucosinolates by disrupting angiogenesis and promoting apoptosis. DIM has been shown in clinical trials to preclude not only cervical and prostate cancer, but cancer of the ovaries, thyroid and leukemia. Clearly, there are several carcinomas that are hormone-dependent for their survival; consequently, PEITC and DIM demonstrate their unique capability to suppress cell growth and proliferation.

Note: Men and women both have testosterone and estrogen, just in drastically different ratios.

One serving of cruciferous vegetables per day has impactful cancer prevention abilities, but it’s not ideal. A variety of different types is needed to cover the spectrum of glucosinolates in your diet. For example, watercress provides the precursor for PEITC. Cabbage, Brussels sprouts and broccoli offer a sulforaphane precursor and kale provides the precursor for DIM. Garden cress, cabbage and Indian cress contain the precursor for another glucosinolate, benzyl isothiocyanate (BITC). Brussel sprouts of all the cruciferous vegetables contain the highest amount of glucosinolates at 104 mg per ½ cup/44 grams (See chart below). Not listed is broccoli sprouts, which are 3-4 day old broccoli plants. They contain a significant amount of the sulforaphane precursor glucoaphanin, by as much as 100 times than that of broccoli itself and it can have concentrations of 73 mg+ per ounce of this compound.

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In the end, there are 4 key glucosinolates I want you to remember:  I3C, DIM, PEITC and Sulforaphane. Large cohort studies have made correlations with cruciferous vegetable intake of 5+ servings per week and a considerable attenuation in cancer risk (15, 16).

The one caveat that needs to be mentioned is that when these vegetables are boiled, steamed or microwaved, the heat can inactivate the key enzyme, myrosinase, which is a key mediator by hydrolyzing the glucosinolate precursors that ultimately forms the isothiocyanate specific to that vegetable.  The data shows that boiling between 9-15 minutes induces anywhere between 18-59% reductions in glucosinolate concentrations. However, the median loss is around 36% (17). The trade off if you decide to eat them raw, is ingestion of anti-nutrients such as oxalates that interfere with iron and calcium absorption and goitrogens that interfere with iodine absorption. Steaming destroys up to 30% of goitrogens and boiling as much as 90%.  But again, when eaten raw, the glucosinolates are preserved.

So What’s The Compromise?

If you have a preconceived diagnosis of thyroid issues or are have borderline hypothyroidism, for example, then it would be sensible to stray from raw vegetables. Otherwise, in a healthy individual, eating raw isn’t likely to pose a problem, but cooking every now and then isn’t such a bad idea either. They key word here is, balance.

Your diet and lifestyle has a major impact on your risk for disease and evidence shows that 30 - 40% of all cancers can be prevented by these 2 measures alone (18). Based on the plethora of evidence, cruciferous vegetables are extremely nutritious and promote good health.

I don’t think you will ever want to turn down a vegetable again!



My Note: Myrosinase, a class of enzymes that catalyzes the hydrolysis (breakdown) of glucosinolates, is physically separated from glucosinolates in intact plant cells (4). When cruciferous vegetables are chopped or chewed, myrosinase can interact with glucosinolates and release isothiocyanates from their precursors.

Several plant extracts complement the detoxifying and epigenetic effects of cruciferous vegetables, making them valuable additions to a comprehensive cancer-prevention supplement. The three most potent ones include apigenin, cat’s claw, and rosemary.

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NASM CPT, Master's in Human Nutrition
Precision Nutrition Sports & Exercise Nutritionist

Justin Janoska is a professional fitness coach and a clinical nutritionist who specializes in helping people with challenging diseases. He runs an online coaching platform where he helps people like you reach build muscle or lose weight.

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Another great article. I am a HUGE proponent of proper diet and nutrition to prevent disease and slow down the aging process. Many people don't realize that cancer is only caused by genetic flaws 7-8% of the time. Most cancers are caused by malnourishment - meaning lack of critical micronutrients that protect our DNA from free radical and oxidative stress damage that is the byproduct of being alive and our environment. The processed food people eat is metabolically empty and devoid of the critical micronutrients we need for health. Everyone gets so caught up in the macros of fat, carbs, and protein and forgets that it is not really the quantity but the QUALITY of the calories we ingest that matters for health and well being :-)

NutritionMax  Edit  Delete  Close

Right on the F'in money man. Can't say how thrilled I am to hear that because those exact words come out of my mouth ALL the time... especially this: "Everyone gets so caught up in the macros of fat, carbs, and protein and forgets that it is not really the quantity but the QUALITY of the calories" Thanks. I appreciate it :)


I am eating some Cruciferous Vegetables right now

NutritionMax  Edit  Delete  Close

Thanks man. Honestly, I'm leaning more to the side of eating raw as much as possible. Steaming for a few mins is needed sometimes, so that's fine.

rayyan454  Edit  Delete  Close

great article max but i've read the lemon can prevent 18 type of cancers ,we need to balance our food but should we boil Cruciferous Vegetables? aren't they lose some benefits of fighting cancer? or should we eating them directly i lose good people because of cancer it's big enemy to us