By The Gazette (Montreal) October 17, 2007
Richard Béliveau is a Montreal biochemist and cancer researcher, not a chef. So even though more than 20 of the 160 recipes in Cooking with Foods that Fight Cancer are his, he wasn’t keen on demonstrating any of them – not the Cuban black bean soup or the Bengal beef, not even the dead-easy shepherd’s pie with lentils.
They’re all dishes he eats and enjoys though, along with other foods influenced by cuisines from around the world. The point of the recipes, Béliveau said the other day over green tea in his water’s edge condo, is to guide people and help them realize that it can be pleasant to incorporate into their diets foods intended to make them healthier. “Nothing will change if it doesn’t give you pleasure,” he said.
The animated scientist did permit a peek into his fridge, though, and the contents included several foods he writes about: a giant head of cabbage; a tub of seaweed salad; a dozen or more varieties of green tea in labelled plastic bags, mushrooms; yogourt; a few bottles of acai berry juice, a berry with origins in the Amazon rain forest. All are believed to play a role in thwarting the development of different kinds of cancer.
Béliveau, who holds the chair in cancer prevention and treatment at the Université du Québec à Montréal and heads the molecular medicine laboratory at Ste. Justine Hospital, is better known to Quebecers than many research scientists. For two years, he has written a weekly column for the Journal de Montréal; his first book, Foods that Fight Cancer, written, like this one, with colleague and fellow scientist Denis Gingras, has been translated into 18 languages from the original French.
He does a good deal of public speaking, addressing high school students, as he did on Monday, as well as crowds ranging from lawyers to metal workers, encouraging them to take responsibility for their health – and to choose healthful diets.
Béliveau, 54, worries that “we have lost respect for the food we eat – and for our bodies. We take more care in choosing the gas for our cars than the food for our bodies,” he said when we spoke.
About one-third of cancers are believed to be linked to poor diet, according to international organizations of experts cited by the authors. Poor diet, in this case, generally means a lack of fruits and vegetables.
The authors say that there are more than 200 epidemiological studies to show that people who eat abundant amounts of foods of plant origin – that means fruits and vegetables but also cereals, spices and green tea – are at considerably lower risk of developing cancer than do people who eat these foods only occasionally.
The phytochemical properties of these foods block many of the processes pre-cancerous cells use to grow, the authors explain, essentially creating an environment hostile to the growth of cancerous cells.
“It’s not magical or mystical: It’s biochemical,” Béliveau said. “We are what we eat. And when we eat healthy foods, we feel better.”
“When you are eating plant products, you are treating yourself to a daily doses of chemoprevention,” he said – a kind of non-toxic chemotherapy. More than 60 per cent of the drugs used in clinical chemotherapy to treat cancer are plant-derived, Béliveau said.
Clearly, though, diet is not the only factor at work in the development of cancer. It is known that populations with a higher intake of animal fat and protein have a higher incidence of colon cancer, but there are also vegetarians who get colon cancer.
Clinically detectable cancer, the authors say, does not appear overnight. Rather, “it is the result of a long process during which cells undergo a series of transformations,” as bit by bit, they become capable of “sidestepping our defence systems and invading their host tissues.”
Like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, cancer is related to lifestyle, said Béliveau. Just as smoking is associated with most lung cancer, for instance, obesity is a risk factor for the development of certain kinds of cancer, he said. “Cancer has a lot to do with lifestyle, much more than we used to think,” said Béliveau. “The message of the book is self-responsibility.”
A healthy lifestyle, which means eating right, exercising, maintaining a healthy body weight and not smoking, can help create a hostile environment for tumours.
The recipes, most of which come from top Quebec restaurant chefs, are straightforward and require few ingredients and little effort for excellent results. They occupy only half the book.
The rest of the volume is devoted largely to a scientific, but accessible, discussion of cancer and lifestyle and of how specific foods may play a role in preventing the development of certain types of cancer.
The book “Cooking with Foods that Fight Cancer” is sprinkled liberally with descriptions of scientific studies that show a link between diet and cancer prevention. And for those who want to learn more, there’s a bibliography: Think of it as dessert.