You Can Prevent Cancer

Tip the odds in your favor with these supportive suggestions.

| July/August 2005

According to the American Cancer Society, smoking causes one-third of the 500,000 annual U.S. cancer deaths. Another third is attributable to poor diet and sedentary living. The final third’s causes remain controversial. The implications of this breakdown are clear: Don’t smoke, and embrace the diet and active lifestyle that help prevent what just this year became the nation’s leading killer. (For decades, heart disease was number one — now it’s number two.)

Unfortunately, eating and exercising to reduce cancer risk are easier said than done. In most households, Mom no longer spends her day preparing meals the American Cancer Society would applaud. Most adults have jobs and time-consuming commutes. They come home exhausted, so meal preparation gets short shrift and convenience is king. As a result, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, restaurants — often fast-food places — now supply one-third of Americans’ calories, almost double the proportion of 30 years ago. Meanwhile, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than half of Americans are as physically active as health experts recommend. But with some planning and determination, it’s not all that difficult to embrace a cancer-preventive diet and lifestyle.

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

Many people imagine cancer as an alien that invades our bodies inexplicably and consumes us from the inside out. But cancer is no alien. The biochemical processes that produce it are at work in our bodies from the moment we’re conceived. They’re part of what helps us grow; but in cancer, growth spins out of control — or more precisely, burns out of control. Slow burning is how we metabolize food. Metabolism is fueled by oxygen. But some of the body’s oxygen molecules turn into nasty electrically charged ions called free radicals that become so highly chemically reactive that they damage our DNA. To repair and prevent free radical damage, the body marshals compounds known as antioxidants, among them vitamins A, C and E, and the mineral selenium. A mountain of research shows that ingesting anything that promotes free radical creation — for example, cigarette smoke — boosts cancer risk. But ingesting antioxidant nutrients reduces risk.

Antioxidant nutrients are found overwhelmingly in fruits and vegetables. As fruit and vegetable consumption increases, cancer risk decreases. The classic study was published in 1992 by an epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who analyzed every prior study published that correlated diet and cancer risk, some 200 studies in all. Compared with people who ate few fruits and vegetables, those who ate the most had only half the cancer risk. Since then, many more studies have corroborated this finding.

As a result, the National Cancer Institute recommends eating at least five — and preferably nine — servings of fruits and vegetables a day. (See “What’s a Serving?” on Page 22.) Currently, most Americans eat only about three daily servings of fruit and vegetables, so we’ve got a way to go, but the goal is within reach. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not difficult to get at least five. Have one or two pieces of fruit or fruit juice with breakfast — for example, raisins on cereal and a glass of orange juice. Have a vegetable and salad at lunch. Snack on fruit or vegetables (carrot sticks, bell pepper slices, etc.). Have a vegetable and salad with dinner. And have some fruit for evening snacks — instead of ice cream, try fruit sorbet.

Now for two fine points: First, french fries and other deep-fried vegetables (for example, vegetable tempura) don’t count toward your five to nine servings. Deep frying means loads of fat, which negates vegetables’ cancer-preventive benefits (see below).



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