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Any discussion surrounding nutrition encompasses many points of view. When you add in the cancer factor, it becomes even more complex to establish a “one answer fits all” response. But one thing we can for sure guarantee exists: a connection.

The body and its many systems, tissues, and cells are deeply interconnected and intimately related with how we nurture ourselves.  Nurture can come from the environment, the people around us, and of course, the foods we eat and the nutrients (or the lack of thereof) we are getting. What most of us have realized by now is that the foods we put in our mouth affect the way we look, feel and our overall health and wellbeing.

Food can relate to cancer in many ways, especially when considering the gut, that connection becomes clearer. Nutrition influences gut health, metabolism, immune system and even our genetic code, and DNA1. As outlined in a previous post on our blog, this connection involves1:

  • Nutrigenomics
  • Epigenetics
  • Dysbiosis
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Inflammation
  • Immune system
  • Cancer treatment 

In today’s post we will focus more on Nutrigenomics. Although a fairly new discipline, Nutrigenomics has an enormous potential to be used in the prevention and management of many diseases including cancer2


Also known as nutritional genomics, can be broadly defined as the relationship between nutrients, diet, and gene expression, or the science that studies the connection between human nutrition, human genome and health3,4.This is the area of nutrition that seeks to search, identify, and understand, at a molecular level, the different responses observed from diverse dietary choices, both at individual and populational level, which result from the interaction between food compounds with the genome5. Basically, this science studies the effects of foods or components of a specific food or diet, called bioactive compounds, on the expression of human genes. This effect may increase or suppress gene expression, depending how these bioactive compounds contribute to change gene activity or alter gene expression5. It seeks to evaluate not just how the whole body responds to certain foods, but also the relationship between certain genes and specific bioactive compounds.

How do foods affect our body?

We all have witnessed the effects of food in our body, both in the way we feel and look. However, on a deeper level, have you actually questioned exactly how the foods you eat affect your body? 

Here, we are not focusing on how you feel after a heavy meal, or how excess calories can make you gain weight, or poor food choices can make you feel sick. But how food can literally change your body make up (at a genetic level) and even the way your body systems function.

Isn’t that amazing?

How does this work?

A recent study found that plant microRNAs (miRNA) have been found in the blood of humans, in what the authors call “cross-kingdom RNA interference6.” 

What are micro RNAs (miRNA) 

MicroRNA (miRNA) are small, evolutionary conserved, single-stranded, non-coding RNA molecules (containing about 20-24 nucleotides) that have been found in plants, animals and some viruses7. These small endogenous RNAs bind to messenger RNA (mRNA) transcripts to inhibit their translation into proteins and play a significant role in the regulation of gene-expression post transcriptionally1,6,8

Why is this relevant?

The findings of this and other studies indicate that food is a source of plant miRNAs to the human body through dietary intake, gut absorption, and then into the human circulating system, with the potential to regulate human gene expression1,6.

Yes, you read it well: the foods you eat play a role in regulating the expression of your genes. 

These miRNAs have the ability to change your genetic expression! Which can be good if you eat healthy leafy greens, or bad, if your diet is filled with unhealthy processed foods.

Research observations also indicate that miRNA expression profiles are altered in specific tumors, implying that miRNA may be involved in development of cancer and other diseases7. Making this area of research a promising tool in the near future to identify and/or treat several diseases.

The cancer connection

Studies have analyzed the connection between miRNAs and cancer. Plant-based miRNAs have been shown to play roles in the initiation and inhibition of cancer1. For example, plant miRNA 159 is shown to target the Transcription Factor 7 (TCF7) gene and inversely correlate to breast cancer incidence and progression. This miRNA 159 that targets the TCF7 to decrease breast cancer growth comes from broccoli1!

Most of the well known studies have been done on the Mediterranean diet.  One of these studies highlighted the nutritional value of several bioactive components common on the Mediterranean diet, and how these are of particular interest in the field of epigenetics for their anticancer properties9. As the authors of this study point out, these molecular nutrients can modulate epigenetic mechanisms, regulating gene expression, with direct effect on the epigenome9. This rapid and effective response to nutritional changes may lead to the development of new approaches to cancer treatment and prevention, focused on nutri-prevention and nutritherapy9.

The Mediterranean diet, like our living food plant-based diet, is naturally rich in fruits and vegetables, and especially when putting more emphasis on cruciferous vegetables and citrus fruits, is one of the best sources of these important bioactive compounds, hence a great option for cancer prevention. 

plant based foods
Some of these compounds include9:

  • Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) – a type of catechin especially abundant in green tea
  • Quercetin – a flavonol, found mainly in capers and in some vegetables such as red onion, cruciferous vegetables, celery, lettuce, asparagus, tomatoes and shallots
  • Curcuma – a polyphenolic compound with many beneficial actions, from the Curcuma longa plant 
  • Fisetin – a flavonol found in various vegetables and some fruits, including strawberries, apples, persimmons, onions and cucumbers
  • Indole 3 carbinol (I3C), di-indoylmethane (DIM) and sulforaphane, derived from cruciferous vegetables, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and savoy cabbage
  • Anthocyanins – the richest sources are berries, black grapes, aubergines, red beet, mallow, cherries, apples, cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits and pomegranate
  • Lycopene – a natural antioxidant from the carotenoid family, present at high concentrations in ripe tomatoes and to a lesser extent in watermelon, apricot, grapes, pink grapefruit and papaya
  • Resveratrol – a polyphenolic compound, present in grapes, in wine, in some berries and oil seeds (peanuts), and in particular plants
  • Ellagic acid – a phenolic compound, extracted from pomegranate peel and present in many red fruits, such as raspberries, strawberries and cranberries, as well as in walnuts
  • Silybum marianum – from milk thistle, with various active components, such as Silandrin, Silymarin and Silibinin
  • Capsaicin – a chemical compound present in plants of the Capsicum genus, chili pepper being the main source of capsaicinoids in nature
  • Polyphenols present in extra virgin olive oil

Epigenetic modifications, like those observed with these molecular bioactive compounds, can play a very significant role in the occurrence of disease and pathogenesis. Among the known epigenetic mechanisms, DNA methylation and chromatin remodeling are the most common2

These epigenetic mechanisms, triggered by dietary bioactive compounds, may contribute to the prevention of cancer. A recently published study, Nutrigenomics: Epigenetics and cancer prevention: A comprehensive review, refers to how dietary polyphenols may contribute to the prevention of oral, breast, skin, esophageal, colorectal, prostate, pancreatic and lung cancers. Minerals and vitamins involved in regulatory processes such as; zinc, selenium and folate possess anticancer properties (DNA repairing), and multivitamin intake prevents methylation of cancer cells1.

The importance of Nutrigenomics

Nutrigenomics can play a very significant role in the prevention of diet and lifestyle-related diseases like cancer. The nutrients and bioactive compounds present mainly in plants, contribute to defining metabolic responses and affecting gene expression, which influences both the current health condition of an individual, as well as its resistance or susceptibility to a certain disease2.

Current clinical and research literature in the field of nutrigenomics supports the highly significant importance of this science as a new approach in the prevention and treatment of noncommunicable diseases10.

Research conducted in the field of nutrigenomics and allied disciplines can foster advancements in the knowledge of the molecular background of many diseases, including cancer, providing a new and very promising tool for personalized health approaches and individualized treatment11.

It is not just the treatment of illnesses and diseases, but also the potential to promote health and wellness that makes nutrigenomics “critical for the future of both personalized nutrition and precision healthcare10.”


  1. An Oasis of Healing. Health Articles. The Gut, Nutrition and Cancer Connection. Aug 3, 2021., accessed Apr 27, 2022.
  2. Nasir A, Bullo MMH, Ahmed Z, Imtiaz A, Yaqoob E, Jadoon M, Ahmed H, Afreen A, Yaqoob S. Nutrigenomics: Epigenetics and cancer prevention: A comprehensive review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2020;60(8):1375-1387. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2019.1571480. Epub 2019 Feb 7. PMID: 30729798.
  3. Nutrition Society. Nutrigenomics. The basics. Published: Nov 19, 2018., accessed Apr 28, 2022.
  4. Chadwick R. Nutrigenomics, individualism and public health. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2004;63(1):161-6.
  5. Sales NM, Pelegrini PB, Goersch MC. Nutrigenomics: definitions and advances of this new science. J Nutr Metab. 2014;2014:202759. doi: 10.1155/2014/202759. Epub 2014 Mar 25. PMID: 24795820; PMCID: PMC3984860.
  6. Liu YC, Chen WL, Kung WH, Huang HD. Plant miRNAs found in human circulating system provide evidences of cross kingdom RNAi. BMC Genomics. 2017 Mar 14;18(Suppl 2):112. doi: 10.1186/s12864-017-3502-3. PMID: 28361700; PMCID: PMC5374554.
  7. Macfarlane LA, Murphy PR. MicroRNA: Biogenesis, Function and Role in Cancer. Curr Genomics. 2010 Nov;11(7):537-61. doi: 10.2174/138920210793175895. PMID: 21532838; PMCID: PMC3048316.
  8. Lu TX, Rothenberg ME. MicroRNA. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2018 Apr;141(4):1202-1207. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2017.08.034. Epub 2017 Oct 23. PMID: 29074454; PMCID: PMC5889965.
  9. Divella R, Daniele A, Savino E, Paradiso A. Anticancer Effects of Nutraceuticals in the Mediterranean Diet: An Epigenetic Diet Model. Cancer Genomics Proteomics. 2020 Jul-Aug;17(4):335-350. doi: 10.21873/cgp.20193. PMID: 32576579; PMCID: PMC7367609.
  10. Marcum JA. Nutrigenetics/Nutrigenomics, Personalized Nutrition, and Precision Healthcare. Curr Nutr Rep. 2020 Dec;9(4):338-345. doi: 10.1007/s13668-020-00327-z. PMID: 32578026.
  11. Sellami M, Bragazzi NL. Nutrigenomics and Breast Cancer: State-of-Art, Future Perspectives and Insights for Prevention. Nutrients. 2020 Feb 18;12(2):512. doi: 10.3390/nu12020512. PMID: 32085420; PMCID: PMC7071273.