By Peter Jaret, Natural Solutions
It wasn’t until my annual physical examination, and a simple question from the doctor about my family health history, that I found myself thinking, Uh-oh.
Fourteen years ago my mother died of lung cancer. Ten years later my aunt died of the same disease. Not long ago my brother was diagnosed with lymphoma. Of course I’d known all that. But somehow I hadn’t consciously admitted to myself how often cancer had struck. Brain tumors, skin cancer, prostate cancer–they all showed up somewhere in the family tree. Were we especially susceptible to this terrible disease? And was there anything to do to lower the risk?
Risk for some cancers, in fact, does run in families. Some inherited genes seem to make it easier for healthy cells to mutate into malignancy; others can impair the body’s built-in ability to disable cancer-causing substances before they cause trouble. Inherited risk helps explain why some smokers live until they’re 95 and others, like my mother and her sister, die of lung cancer in their sixties. Someday, genetic tests may be used routinely to assess a person’s risk of specific cancers. But I don’t want to wait for that. I want to do whatever I can to lower my risk. Now.
So I called Melanie Polk, a dietitian and director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research, and she told me the same thing I would hear from almost every expert, alternative or mainstream, including the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society. “Eat more fruits and vegetables. That’s the single most important step most people can take to lower their cancer risk.”
After decades of waging war against cancer, was that the best researchers could offer? Steer your cart to the produce aisle?
“Absolutely,” says John Weisburger, a physician and expert on diet and health at the American Health Foundation/Institute for Cancer Prevention. “It’s hardly news that fruits and vegetables–really, almost any foods that come from plants–are good for health. The real surprise has been discovering just how much protection they contain.” Indeed, foods from plants are turning out to be rich in hundreds, even thousands of newly identified substances that work in many different ways to lower cancer danger. Some boost levels of enzymes in the body that neutralize cancer-causing substances. Some protect cell walls, so carcinogens can’t get in and cause damage. Antioxidants in foods can prevent damage from free radicals that might otherwise disrupt DNA, setting in motion genetic changes that could lead to cancer. Researchers have even discovered substances in food that trigger damaged cells to self-destruct, preventing tumors from forming.
“Cancer-fighting agents in fruits and vegetables work in a variety of ways, and they work together synergistically in ways that we’re only beginning to understand,” says Arthur D. Heller, an internist, gastroenterologist, and clinical nutrition specialist at New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Even when we can’t confirm exactly how some foods protect against cancer, hundreds of studies show that they do. Indeed, the data suggests that one-third of all cancers are related to diet, according to Heller. Some of those are cancers that could be prevented by avoiding highly salted foods or charbroiled meats, which have been linked to cancer risk. But we could ward off many more by simply eating more plant-based foods.
In a recent example, researchers at Simmons College in Boston pored over data from the Nurses Health Study, which collects information via questionnaires from nurses around the country. Women in the study who ate plenty of fruits, vegetables, and legumes were about half as likely to develop colon and rectal cancer as women who skimped on foods from the produce aisle in favor of meat, sweets, and refined carbohydrates. Nothing else researchers know about can cut the risk of colon cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer death, by that much. The danger of prostate cancer can also be slashed with a healthier diet, research shows. Eating foods high in the antioxidant lycopene–red tomatoes are the richest source–can cut prostate cancer risk by as much as 50 percent. And a study from Sweden published this past April showed a reduced risk of mutations that are linked to several types of cancers in people who frequently ate vegetables, citrus fruit, and berries.
The National Cancer Institute, which leads the nation’s research on cancer prevention and treatment, is so convinced of the power of fruits and vegetables that it recently changed its well-known 5-servings-a-day program, designed to encourage Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables, to the 5-to-9-servings-a-day program.
Everyone seems unanimous that the single best way to lower cancer risk is to load up on produce. But that still left me with questions.
What’s a “serving”? Does everything in the produce section count? And for people having a tough time hitting five, are there ways to get more cancer protection without making it feel like work? Here’s what the experts have to say:
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