Will eating certain foods help reduce my chances of getting cancer?

Yes. And since fully one-third of cancer deaths each year are attributed to a poor diet, eating right is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself. Start by loading up on fruits and vegetables. Studies show that people who eat the most produce run just half the cancer risk faced by people who eat the least. Many foods from the garden contain nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E , and selenium, which act as antioxidants; they trap and absorb free radicals, unstable oxygen molecules that form when cells burn off energy during normal metabolism. Left unchecked, free radicals can damage cells and lead to cancer.


Antioxidants are also abundant in tea. A 2005 Swedish study showed that the more cups of black or green tea you drink, the less risk you have of developing ovarian cancer. Epidemiologists reviewed the data from 61,057 women between the ages of 40 and 76 who had completed a food frequency questionnaire, and were followed for cancer incidence for an average of 15 years. Women who drank one cup of tea a day had a 24 percent reduced risk of ovarian cancer as compared to women who never or seldom drank tea. Tea lovers who drank two or more cups of tea had reduced their risk of ovarian cancer by 46 percent, according to the study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.


Other substances, called phytochemicals, may work by preventing carcinogens from forming in the body. Which cancer-fighting foods are best? They're all good, but here are a few stars of the produce aisle:

  • Dark leafy greens and deep yellow and orange vegetables like carrots, yams, and squash get their sunny pigment from antioxidants called carotenoids.
  • Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts contain the phytochemical sulforaphane.
  • Garlic, onions, leeks, and shallots block carcinogens with organosulfides, the chemicals that give these vegetables their pungent odor.
  • Cooked into a sauce, tomatoes release lycopene, which seems to cut the risk of stomach, bladder, colon, and prostate cancer.
  • Red-hot capsaicin, which lends a kick to chili peppers, may offer protection against lung cancer by blocking damage to your genes from the carcinogens in food and cigarette smoke.
  • Cherries, plums, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and grapes get their deep hues from anthocyanins, chemicals that can neutralize carcinogens.
  • Citrus fruits are rich in limonene, which seems to stimulate your immune system to fight cancer cells.
  • Tea leaves (black as well as green) contain antioxidants called polyphenols.

Your cancer-fighting arsenal should also contain grains and legumes. Beans, nuts, and whole-grain breads and cereals can shield you from pancreatic and stomach cancer. They boast plenty of fiber to speed waste out of the body, giving harmful substances less time to damage the cells lining your digestive system. And if you strip away the soybean's plain facade, you'll find a potent tumor fighter called genistein, which may protect against reproductive cancers by interfering with the effects of estrogen.


How much of these foods should I eat?

Aim for 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables every day fresh, frozen, canned, dried, or made into juice. For grains and beans, the goal is 6 to 11 servings a day. That may sound like a lot of food, but one serving size is generally small half a cup of veggies or a slice of bread.


Why can't I just get the nutrients I need from supplements?

The verdict is still out on supplements' cancer-fighting potential. On the promising side, one study of selenium supplements suggested that they may cut the risk of lung, colorectal, and prostate cancer, and vitamin E has lowered prostate cancer and death among smokers. But other studies aren't so encouraging. Scientists in the United States and Europe were alarmed to find that giving beta-carotene supplements to smokers actually increased their chances of getting lung cancer. The problem is that although researchers have started to identify various compounds in food that can disarm cancer cells in the lab, they still don't know how these substances act inside the body. So far, no single food or chemical has been proved to work on its own. Until more is known about supplements, it's probably smarter to get cancer-fighting protection from a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains, which will deliver a range of nutrients and keep you from taking in large and possibly harmful amounts of any one substance. The same goes for fiber supplements. The health benefits may come from a combination of elements rather than the fiber alone, so it's better to get your fiber from the real thing.


What foods should I avoid?

Cut back on fat. A high-fat diet has been linked to an increased risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancer. You should get less than 30 percent of your daily calories from fat. (In the average American diet, 37 percent of calories come from fat). Cut down most of all on saturated fat, the kind that hardens at room temperature and is found in animal products like meat and butter.


Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Drinking raises your risk of cancer of the mouth, larynx, pharynx, esophagus, lungs, liver, and colon. If you're a man, hold the line at two drinks a day. If you're a woman, your body metabolizes alcohol differently, so you need to limit yourself to no more than one can of beer, one glass of wine, or one hard drink a day.


Eat processed meats sparingly; such items as hot dogs and lunch meats contain nitrates and nitrites. These preservatives have been linked to cancer of the esophagus and stomach in countries like Iceland, China, and Japan, where people eat large amounts of smoked, salted, or cured meat.


Don't overdo the barbecued meats. The longer you leave your meat on the barbie, the more carcinogens form in it. To reduce cooking time on the grill, first thaw meat or partly cook it in the microwave.


If I do get cancer, can any foods help treat or cure it?

There are tantalizing hints that diet can play a role in cancer treatment. A small Japanese study published in 1998, for instance, found that breast cancer was about half as likely to recur or metastasize in women who drank four or more cups of green tea a day. But there's no solid evidence yet that any particular food or diet can cure cancer. Until there is, one of the best ways to boost your immune system is to make sure that you're getting plenty of nutrients by eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Consider working with a registered dietitian to devise a meal plan that's right for you.


Kristin Kloberdanz, M.A., a former associate editor for Consumer Health Interactive, is an editor at Book magazine in New York City.




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