We always hear about those one-off studies finding things like "compounds in blueberries promote brain health" or "an antioxidant in green tea may prevent breast cancer." And while they're fun and exciting and may cause us to change our eating habits for a couple of days, they really don't tell you all that much. After all, our overall diet—and the interplay of a variety of different foods and nutrients—is a much better predictor of health and future disease risk than whether or not we're simply eating a whole lot of spinach.
In his book, Li gives a science-backed approach to using food as medicine. He explains how the body naturally resists chronic diseases like cancer and dementia through five health defence systems (angiogenesis, regeneration, the microbiome, DNA protection, and immunity) and what exactly we should be eating to activate these defence systems.
Pretty cool. But that got us thinking: What does the man who literally wrote the book on eating to beat disease actually eat on a daily basis? I was lucky enough to chat with Li to find out. While he emphasized that no day is "typical" and that there are a variety of ways to eat a healthful diet, he did share some meals you might find him eating on a pretty regular basis.
For breakfast, Li tends to keep things very light, starting with either a cup of whole-leaf green tea or espresso and some fruit, like kiwi. "Green tea and coffee are what I call Grand Slammer foods, and what I mean by that is they activate all five health defence systems in the body," he says. Kiwis are also Grand Slammers, and they're particularly great at protecting DNA, which can help slow cellular aging and reduce cancer risk. "A kiwi a day has actually been shown to reduce damage to DNA by about 60 percent," he says.
Occasionally he'll have a slice of toast as well. Not just any toast, though—whenever possible, Li opts for a high-quality sourdough. "I eat it for its impact on my microbiome," he says. "Sourdough is made with Lactobacillus reuteri, a healthy gut bacteria that helps activate our immune system and speed healing. It also activates our brain and prompts it to release the social, feel-good hormone oxytocin. The research has shown that even when the bacteria is killed by the cooking process, the remnants of the bacteria will still have all those benefits. It's quite amazing." Consider our minds blown.
When Li is travelling, he might add in a couple of pieces of hard cheese such as Gouda, Muenster, or Camembert in the morning, which are often part of the European breakfast spread. The reason for hard cheeses, specifically? They're a great source of vitamin K2(also found in egg yolks and chicken thighs), which is not only heart-healthy but anti-angiogenic as well, meaning it helps slow the formation of blood vessels that promote tumour growth. (Fun fact: Li rose to fame in 2010 when his TedTalk on anti-angiogenic foods, Can We Eat To Starve Cancer? went viral. We highly recommend watching.)
Li likes to go heavy on the plants at lunch and often leans toward salads made with nutrient-packed leafy greens like arugula, spinach, radicchio, or mâche. "Leafy greens, particularly those in the brassica family, contain special compounds that are anti-angiogenic, protect DNA, and boost the immune system," he says. He'll also add some nuts and seeds, which activate multiple defence systems in the body, olive oil-based dressing, and fatty fish. "I enjoy smaller tinned fish like sardines, mackerel, or anchovies," he says. "They're lower on the food chain, which means they're lower in mercury, but they still contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids."
From time to time, Li will skip lunch altogether. "Skipping lunch or breakfast now and then reduces caloric intake, which improves your telomeres—the caps of DNA on the end of your chromosomes—and is associated with cellular longevity," he says. "I don't purposely fast to lose weight or become ketogenic, but I'm mindful that doing this a couple of days a week has some benefit."
Dinner is Li's biggest meal of the day, and he pays special attention to what's fresh and in season. "I tend to build my meal around a core vegetable first and then think about how to make that vegetable as tasty as possible." One of Li's favorite veggies to prepare at dinner is roasted radicchio, which he slices in half, drizzles with olive oil, and cooks for about 15 minutes in the oven. "Radicchio is one of those vegetables that activates multiple defence systems at the same time," he says. Of course, that's not enough by itself. To go along with it? He'll pair it with something like a steamed fillet of fish and roasted purple potatoes with rosemary. "Research has shown that the natural pigment that makes these potatoes purple actually kills cancer stem cells, which are the really bothersome cells that allow cancer to keep coming back."
He'll even eat pasta from time to time, but he knows exactly how to ramp up its disease-fighting potential. First, he'll go for whole-wheat pasta, with the shell of the grain present, which contains anti-angiogenic and immune-boosting properties. As for the sauce, all varieties of tomatoes (when cooked) contain a highly absorbable form of the powerful, cancer-starving carotenoid antioxidant lycopene—but, whenever possible, Li will opt for San Marzano or cherry tomatoes, which have the highest lycopene levels. Then, he'll add a glug of olive oil for even more disease-fighting benefits. But not just any olive oil. "I always look at the bottle to see if they identify the type of olive," says Li. His top choice? Extra-virgin olive oil made with Greek Koroneiki olives, which are a particularly potent source of hydroxytyrosol, an immune-enhancing, anti-angiogenic, DNA-protecting polyphenol compound. To top it all off? He might add some capers, which pack a hefty dose of the antioxidant quercetin, which is anti-inflammatory and may help inhibit the growth of several types of cancer.
For a sweet fix, Li gravitates toward chocolate (don't we all?). "I'll have a small piece of dark chocolate, 70 percent cacao or higher, which is one of those Grand Slamming foods," he says. "It tastes great and you don't need a lot."