The new cabbage soup diet

Learn how cabbage keeps you healthy by fighting cancer, strengthening bones and more.

By Joe Schwarcz

What cabbage can do for you
Like beans, cabbage doesn't have a great reputation. A British food critic once suggested that by comparison with boiled cabbage, "steamed coarse newsprint bought from bankrupt Finnish salvage dealers and heated over smoky oil stoves is an exquisite delicacy!" I have never tasted coarse newsprint, steamed or otherwise, but given the choice, I would go for the cabbage. I think we could all do with some more indole-3-carbinol.

Protective enzymes
The human body is a fantastic machine with a variety of defence mechanisms to protect itself against undesirable chemical intruders. A variety of enzymes are available either to convert these intruders into less harmful substances or to link up with them and eliminate them through the urine. These protective enzymes are cranked out by a cell's genetic machinery when receptors on the cell's surface are activated by the presence of potentially dangerous foreign substances.

Way back in the 1950s, researchers notes that substances that caused cancer triggered the release of protective enzymes, but that unfortunately, in many cases, the enzymes were unable to eliminate the carcinogen completely. It was clear, though, that some test animals fared better than others. Apparently, they had more efficient enzyme-producing systems. There are human parallels here also. Not every smoker develops lung cancer. Why not? Do the lucky ones produce more protective enzymes? And if so, can we foster this trait?

The fight against breast cancer
A clue came when researchers noted that after rats were exposed to a carcinogen, they were more resistant to the effects of a second carcinogen. They appeared to be protected by the enzymes their cells synthesized in response to the first attacker. Obviously, exposure to a carcinogen is not a method we can use to protect ourselves against other carcinogens. But what if there were substances that had a chemical similarity to cancer-causing agents but were themselves not dangerous? Might they not trick cells into generating protective enzymes? By the 1960s it had become apparent that this was a real possibility.

Chemicals in cabbage, as well as in other cruciferous vegetables (so-called because of the cross-shaped leaves) like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts were found to stimulate the production or protective enzymes. Soon researchers focused on one specific compound that had aroused interest because of its potential in the fight against breast cancer, namely indole-3-carbinol.

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Excerpted from An Apple a Day: The Myths, Misconceptions and Outright Exaggerations about Diet, Nutrition and the Foods We Eat. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright 2007 by Dr. Joe Schwarcz. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

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