Learn what foods can help fight cancer

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Joanne Irwin,  a Cornell University certified plant-based educator, at her home in Naples. As a Cancer Project Food for Life instructor, she teaches classes on how to make the right food choices that can help prevent and survive cancer. Her next class takes place next Wednesday.

submitted Joanne Irwin, a Cornell University certified plant-based educator, at her home in Naples. As a Cancer Project Food for Life instructor, she teaches classes on how to make the right food choices that can help prevent and survive cancer. Her next class takes place next Wednesday.

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Cooking instructor Joanne Irwin knows how to make kale taste good.

She blends the woody, cabbage-like bitter green with a banana, an orange, half a pear, a handful of grapes, a cup of almond milk and ice to make a velvety smooth drink called the “green goddess” that repels with its bright, green color but draws with every yummy slurp.

“After I made it at Whole Foods once, I went back the next day to see all the kale gone,” said Irwin, laughing. “The guy at the store told me they ran all out after the demo.”

Irwin’s flair for making plant foods delicious took several years of studying and experimentation to master. Now she is a Cornell University-certified plant-based educator and a Cancer Project Food for Life instructor. Through the project, an organization that advances cancer prevention and survival through nutrition education and research, Irwin will teach the first class in its seven-part Food for Life program to Naples residents from noon to 2 p.m. next Wednesday at the Cancer Alliance of Naples and to Bonita Springs residents from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. March 2 at the First Presbyterian Church.

In the introduction class, students will learn about making food choices that can help people prevent or survive cancer. National Cancer Institute research shows that as much as 50 percent of cancer risk may be related to diet.

“Food is the new medicine,” said Irwin, who has split her time between Cape Cod and Naples since 2000.

The recipes eliminate meat and dairy. They focus on fruits, vegetables, beans and grains. The phytochemicals in these plant foods boost immune strength and inhibit disease progression.

At the Naples class, Irwin will demonstrate how to create the kale smoothie, a dip, roll-up sandwiches and a hot dish.

Participants at the Bonita Springs class will learn about healthy breakfast foods, including how to make a tofu scramble.

“I’m opening the door,” said Irwin, who gave up meat and dairy in 2006 after she discovered high lipid levels.

“People can choose to go through it or not, but they need to understand it’s not a diet. It’s a lifestyle change.”

Irwin said one of the most common fears of altering eating habits is taste. Many in her classes are afraid the food will not be flavorful or not what they are used to.

“It’s green. It’s weird. I tell them to just try it,” said Irwin who has been a healthy cooking instructor since 2007. “You have to feel the fear and still do (it) and you’ll see that it’s good.”

While some hesitate because of flavor, others have concerns of the cost. Irwin admits that some things are more expensive, but the price is coming down because of availability in more stores. She advises to buy beans and grains in bulk. She also suggests buying from farmers markets, where produce can be cheaper.

“What is it worth to you to live a long and healthy life?” Irwin asked.

“If it’s worth it, people have to be resourceful,” she added.

Irwin’s biggest fear in her own journey to eat healthier was implementing the new knowledge to her table. She said it was daunting to think of cooking in a new way and with new ingredients, like tofu and quinoa. One easy approach was to find alternatives for meat, dairy and oil in dishes she already made, like her favorite meal — meatballs, which she now makes with meat substitute.

“I broke out in a cold sweat,” Irwin said, of her early healthy cooking. “But I read cookbooks, experimented and found that it was easy.”

Irwin continues experimenting with her husband, Derek Irwin, as the guinea pig. He grew up in Northern Ireland on a traditional diet of meat and potatoes. For three years now, he has given up meat and dairy. On some occasions he’ll order fish at a restaurant, and he has to have corn beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.

“I thought it would be tough, too,” Derek Irwin said. “I like meat and love prime rib.”

“But now I don’t live to eat. I eat to live.”

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