Eat to Live
by Mary Menendez
April 14, 2004
By now, most everyone with even a
cursory interest in health knows that fruits and vegetables
are more effective than foods like cheeseburgers at making
your body more resistant to chronic diseases such as cancer.
But beyond that generality, few people seem to know how
to fine-tune their meals for the most anti-cancer bang per
Over the course of the lifetime of planet Earth, the plant
world has devised and concocted a wealth of nutrients that
can help your body fight off cancer.
It's time to put them to work for you.
Would you be interested in a tasty, quick way to cut your
chances of certain types of cancer in half? The means to
this desirable end are about as close as your refrigerator
and your dining room table: All you have to do is cut open
and eat a single orange every day.
According to cancer research in Australia, adding that extra
serving of citrus fruit to your diet every day, only once a
day, boosts immunity enough to significantly lower your risk
of some common cancers.
" Citrus fruits [protect] the body through their antioxidant
properties and strengthen the immune system, inhibiting
tumor growth and normalizing tumor cells," says Katrine
Baghurst, PhD, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial
Research Organization (CSIRO). According to Dr. Baghurst and
her fellow researchers, oranges possess the most
antioxidants of any fruit: more than 170 different
The protection you can get from oranges is due to their
influence on immunity. Your immune system has the assigned
task of protecting you against cells that can turn
cancerous. Sixty of the chemicals in oranges are substances
called flavonoids that can help the immune system fend off
inflammation and tumors.
When Americans eat fruits and vegetables, they don't eat the
ones with the most anti-cancer (or other) health benefits.
Instead, we dine on the same so-so produce too frequently.
If we want more health benefits from our veggies, we'd
better look to expand our culinary horizons.
" While people understand they should eat a variety of
fruits and vegetables each day, they are not translating
'variety' in a way to capture health benefits, such as
reducing their risk of developing chronic diseases," says
Susie Nanney, PhD, acting director of the Obesity Prevention
Center at Saint Louis University.
" People aren't eating the fruits and vegetables that
contain the most nutrients," warns Dr. Nanney. "People are
quite frankly confused about nutrition. I feel their pain."
Unfortunately, Americans rely too often on iceberg lettuce,
corn, apples, potatoes and bananas; a steady diet of that
produce doesn't produce the same benefits as indulging in a
wider variety of vegetarian foods.
Dr. Nanney points out that the vegetables and fruits most
effective at helping the body fight cancer are dark green
leafy veggies, citrus (oranges, grapefruits), cruciferous
vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower) and produce that has
yellow or orange color.
Making Dinner Plans
Dr. Nanney's spectrum of desirable foods includes:
• White: Don't eat the usual potatoes; add cauliflower to
• Green: Eat dark lettuces, like romaine and red leaf; eat a
lot more spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
• Yellow/orange: Instead of eating corn and bananas
frequently, eat more carrots, winter squashes, sweet
potatoes, cantaloupe, oranges and grapefruit.
• Red: Apples are helpful in some ways, but indulge more
often in tomatoes (colored by lycopene, a strong
antioxidant); include red peppers and strawberries in your
diet; these are rich in vitamin C.
" When we look at how to get the most bang for your buck,
the most power, it's by eating these other fruits and
vegetables instead of the traditional choices," Nanney
Studies show that tomatoes, colored by a pigment called
lycopene, may be particularly helpful in lowering men's
chances of prostate cancer. For instance, research on about
three dozen men with prostate cancer found that those taking
supplements of lycopene and other tomato phytochemicals had
smaller tumors and less spread of their cancers (Exper Bio
and Med, 2002; 227: 881).
The researchers conclude that "lycopene may have an
antitumor effect and may be useful as an adjunct to standard
treatment of prostate cancer, such as surgery, radiation
therapy, hormones and chemotherapy. In addition, lycopene
supplementation appears to have reduced the [spread of
cancer within the prostate], suggesting that lycopene may
have a role in the prevention of prostate cancer."
In a study on African-American men, who suffer a higher rate
of prostate cancer than other Americans, researchers also
found that lycopene can limit the DNA damage that may
presage cancer (Amer Chem Soc Meeting #222, 2001).
" This study does not say that tomato sauce reduces cancer,"
cautions Phyllis E. Bowen, PhD, a nutritionist at the
University of Chicago and lead investigator in the study. "
It says that it reduces DNA damage that we think is
associated with cancer."
Other studies have confirmed the finding that men who eat
tomatoes suffer less prostate cancer. And if you want the
most anti-cancer benefit from tomatoes, better cook them.
According to Rui Hai Liu, MD, Cornell assistant professor of
food science, "[Our] research demonstrates that heat
processing actually enhanced the nutritional value of
tomatoes by increasing the lycopene content-[the]
phytochemical that makes tomatoes red-that can be absorbed
by the body, as well as the total antioxidant activity. The
research dispels the popular notion that processed fruits
and vegetables have lower nutritional value than fresh
While you're making an effort to eat more of the colorful
vegetables, you should also eat less fatty red meat and cut
back on high-fat dairy foods, according to research from
In this study, which covered eight years and looked at the
diets of more than 90,000 women, scientists found that those
premenopausal women who ate the most fatty red meat and
regular milk had the highest chance of developing invasive
The scientists taking part in this study believe that eating
more saturated fat from meat may increase hormone levels
that boost the chances of breast cancer (Jrnl Natl Cancer
In this research, the total amount of fat didn't affect
cancer risk, but the amount of animal fat did. Women who ate
the most red meat had a 54% higher chance of breast cancer.
Aside from avoiding red meat, women who wish to lower their
risk of breast cancer should also limit their consumption of
A study of two thousand post- menopausal women found that
those who averaged about two drinks a day raised their risk
of breast cancer by about 80% (Cancer Epidem, Biomarkers and
Here, too, researchers believe that alcohol affects the
level of hormones that influence cancer.
The moral of the research into how food can slow cancer
risk: Eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits early and
often. Limit meat and alcohol.
Change the color of the fruits and vegetables on your plate
for a better chance of a brighter future.