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December 1999 Issue
Diet and the Risk of Cancer
by Ronda L. Halpin
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Vitamins
Low levels of vitamin A may increase the risk of skin cancer.

Vitamins C and E and beta-carotene are anti-oxidants which help prevent cancer by inhibiting the formation and growth of tumors. Fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene have also been shown to reduce the risk of cancer in the larynx, esophagus and lungs. For foods rich in beta-carotene, think particularly about dark yellow or orange fruits and vegetables, and green leafy vegetables, such as dried apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, cooked collards, uncooked spinach leaves, fresh parsley, peaches, pumpkin and sweet potatoes.

Vitamin C enhances the immune system and may reduce the cancer-causing potential of pesticides, heavy metals and industrial-use hydrocarbons by helping to detoxify these compounds.

Vitamin D has been found to make cells less resistant to chemotherapy.

A decreased intake of vitamin E is associated with lung, colorectal, stomach and bladder cancers.

Deficiencies in the so-called "lipotropes" -- B12, folic acid, choline, methionine -- may increase susceptibility to chemically induced cancers.

Effects of Other Substances
Copper, manganese and zinc are elements which have the notably beneficial effect of inhibiting tumor growth associated with cancer. They are also needed for anti-oxidant enzymes to do their work.

There may be a link between high iron in the diet, with high transferrin saturation in the blood, and cancers of the lung, colon, bladder and esophagus.

What You Can Do

Improve your odds against cancer -- eat right, exercise, watch your weight and don't smoke -- and you will be 60 percent less likely to get cancer. Remember, one-third of cancer deaths in the United States may be linked to how people eat. Here are some general recommendations you might want to follow:

  1. Eat a plant-based diet -- Eat a plant-based diet, rich in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and minimally-processed complex carbohydrates. Plant foods are established cancer-protectors because they are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and phytochemicals. The less red meat and calories you eat, the better.

  2. Avoid gaining weight as you age -- Ten pounds during adulthood is acceptable. The risk for health problems increases for those who gain weight. Endometrial cancer, kidney cancer, and breast cancer risk have been linked to weight gain.

  3. Eat fruits and vegetables -- Eat five a day of fruits and vegetables all year. Green leafy vegetables and citrus fruits have compounds that are potent-cancer fighters. All fruits and vegetables play a part in reducing risk of cancers of the lungs, colon, mouth, throat, stomach, breast, pancreas and bladder.

    Vegetables and fruits contain beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium -- all anti-oxidants that protect cells from damage by free-radicals. These compounds also boost the immune system to fight off infection and cancer.

    The cruciferous family of vegetables-broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, and brussel sprouts, have particular protection against cancer. Tomatoes contain lutein and lycopene, and carrots have carotenoids, which can also help in the fight against cancer.

  4. Eat complex carbohydrates -- Eat more than seven servings a day of whole grains, legumes, roots and tubers. Limit foods high in refined sugar. Complex carbohydrate foods offer protection against cancer of the colon, rectum, breast, and pancreas because of their fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Whole grains, brown rice, dried peas and beans, sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, and bananas are particularly powerful. The fiber moves waste through the digestive tract faster, so harmful substances don't have as much contact with your intestinal walls.

  5. Limit alcohol -- A moderate amount of alcohol offers protection against heart disease. However, the more alcohol consumed regularly, the higher the incidence of mouth, liver, larynx, and colon cancers. So the higher the intake of alcohol, the grater the risk of cancer. Keep it low: two drinks a day for men, one a day for women.

  6. Limit fatty foods -- Especially those of animal origin. Use more monounsaturated fats as part of your total fat intake. Diets high in fat, particularly saturated fat, promote breast, colon, endometrial, lung, prostate and rectal cancers. Fat intake should fall below 30 percent of total calories, and canola or olive oils should replace lard, butter and margarine in the diet.

  7. Limit salty foods and use of salt -- The rate of stomach cancer is higher in populations who eat a high-salt diet. Try to limit processed foods and the use of the salt shaker.

  8. Only eat foods that are stored properly -- Foods that are stored in warm damp conditions can develop molds, and mycotoxins that may promote liver cancer. Peanuts and grains can develop mycotoxins in commercial storage.

  9. Refrigerate perishable foods -- Refrigerated food needs less salt for preservation, thus reducing the risk of stomach cancer.

  10. Do not eat charred foods -- Don't eat overly crisp grilled meats and fish. Very high heat on protein foods can produce cancer causing heterocyclic aromatic amines. These compounds have been linked to colon and rectal cancers.

  11. Drink tea -- Green and black tea have polyphenols, specifically catechins, which prevent cancerous cells from growing and may even destroy them.

  12. Give soy a try -- Americans do not use soy foods as a staple, but populations who do have less cancer of the breast, prostate, and lung. The substance in soy, genistein, is an isoflavone that appears to protect against cancer. You can increase your isoflavone intake with soy milk, tofu, and the textured soy protein used in veggie burgers.

  13. Pile on the onions and garlic -- The pungent flavor from these vegetables come from chemicals called organosulfurs, which detoxify potential carcinogens. Garlic extract has slowed the growth of breast, skin and colon cancers in mice. It seems the raw version of onions and garlic is most useful in cancer protection. More research is needed to determine if supplements are as effective as the food source.

  14. Try a little hot spice -- Chile peppers that set your tongue on fire also burn out carcinogens. They contain a potent anti-oxidant, capsaicin, which interferes with the union of nitrites and amines. These nitrosamines are linked to stomach cancer. Also, capsaicin may keep the carcinogens in cigarette smoke from causing the genetic damage that can lead to lung cancer.

  15. Finally, do not smoke or chew tobacco -- Though not a diet recommendation, it can't go unsaid that tobacco is the chief cause of lung cancer. A great diet can be protective, but is no insurance policy if you smoke

    The use of alcohol, even in moderate amounts, is associated with increased risk for cancers of the mouth, larynx, pharynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breast. Women at high risk for breast cancer might consider abstaining from it altogether. There are no known protective effects of alcohol against cancer to counterbalance the known cancer risks of moderate to heavy use.

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