Magazine article Insight on the News

Do Fruit, Fiber and Fish Really Help Fight Cancer?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Do Fruit, Fiber and Fish Really Help Fight Cancer?

Article excerpt

Recent studies suggest that diet can ward off breast, colon and prostate cancers. But scientists remain skeptical about pills, dietary supplements and certain alternative therapies.

With a new baby on the way and his 30th birthday behind him, Len Contardo of Atlanta made a New Year's resolution to do what he could to avoid cancer. That meant meeting with a nutritionist from the American Cancer Society and changing his eating and exercise habits. He used to reach for a candy bar in the afternoon, but now he peels a grapefruit.

In short, Contardo has incorporated more fruits, vegetables and fiber into his diet. Will it help? It depends on whom you ask. "There is so much research out there that supports healthy eating to lower your risk of getting cancer," says Contardo, director of alumni services at Georgia Tech. "I am interested in anything that can lower my risk."

Indeed, the number of studies devoted to fighting cancer is overwhelming. At one end of the spectrum are skeptics who argue that no one can overcome genetics. At the other are alternative practitioners who maintain a diet of shark cartilage will shrink tumors.

In the middle are researchers who have found that foods from tomato sauce to green tea to tofu do offer some protection from cancer, which strikes 10 million Americans annually. "There are no magic foods," says David Schardt, associate nutritionist for the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Certainly any food by itself is not going to fight cancer, but we look at groups of people who consume certain foods and how their risk is decreased." Experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research recently concluded that a person could reduce cancer risk 30 to 40 percent just by eating more fruits and vegetables.

Unlike heart disease, cancer is actually about 10 different diseases that attack different parts of the body. Scientists are just beginning to understand the role of plant-based phytochemicals and antioxidants, which combat oxygen-induced damage to tissue. Phytochemicals and antioxidants help promote the function of the immune system and the liver. "You may not be able to overcome genetics if you are predisposed to cancer," says Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society, "but you can reduce the risk."

According to the American Cancer Society's "Guideline on Diet, Nutrition and Cancer Prevention," the best nutritional way to reduce the chances of getting breast cancer is to limit alcohol consumption and fat intake. Several new studies also have shown a relationship between soy products and a lowered risk. "Soy is loaded with phytochemicals, which have weak estrogenlike activity," says Doyle. "There is some evidence that soy may protect against hormonal types of cancer, such as breast cancer. However, at some point, if you consume enough soy, it could start acting like estrogen, which is a cancer promoter, so it is something you should talk to your doctor about."

Other studies have shown that prostate cancer may be reduced by taking vitamin E and selenium supplements, decreasing the amount of fat in the diet and consuming foods high in lycopene, the antioxidant found in tomatoes and tomato products, watermelon and pink grapefruit. A six-year study by the Harvard School of Medicine evaluated the cancer-fighting effects of 46 fruits and vegetables, and only the tomato products showed a measurable relationship to reduced incidences of prostate cancer. Another study at Harlem Hospital in New York showed a connection between high lycopene levels and lower rates of lung cancer.

For colon cancer, an increase in fiber from fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods long has been thought to be the best weapon. But a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that low-fat dairy products fight colon cancer. After participants in the study at high risk for the disease added 1,500 milligrams daily (from low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese), doctors found that precancerous cells in the lining of their colons began to look like healthy cells. …

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