The real cancer miracle

Imagine a discovery that reduces the threat of cancer by 50%. Amazing, right? Imagine this miracle substance comes from a rainforest somewhere. You know what would happen: Peter Jennings would be on the next plane, and the world would be glued to their TV sets. But none of that will happen, simply because the miracle substance is . . .

Fruits and vegetables

Jorjette readers already know that eating fruits and vegetables helps keep cancer at bay. But now a major new study confirms more dramatically than ever the power of produce. Researchers in the U.S. and Germany reviewed more than 200 human diet studies from around the world, and they found consistent evidence that people who are high up on the produce-consumption scale have about one-half the risk of developing a broad range of cancers compared with people who eat few fruits and vegetables (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, October 1996).

Kristi Steinmetz, Ph.D., RD, a nutritional epidemiologist in Forchheim, Germany, and one of the study’s authors, says she believes that some of the studies she looked at may have even underestimated the threat of cancer. So in real life, the reduction in cancer risk by eating your vegetables may be even greater than we thought.

Any which way’s O.K.

The new study found the strongest protection against cancer may come from raw veggies, garlic and onions, legumes, carrots, green veggies, cruciferous veggies (the broccoli gang), tomatoes and citrus fruits. But Dr. Steinmetz emphasizes that these particular foods are also the ones people eat most often; other varieties of produce might be just as protective but wouldn’t show up in studies because they’re uncommon. Like most nutritional experts, she believes that all produce is likely to help us.

And no wonder. Fruits and vegetables deliver a legion of substances believed to fight cancer: Essential vitamins like vitamin C, folate and beta-carotene. Fiber. And dozens of natural substances called phytochemicals that scientists are just beginning to uncover — like lyco-pene from tomatoes and ellagic acid from strawberries.

Fortunately, this latest study also confirms the fact that no dietary heroics are necessary to gain the protective benefits that produce can give you. (In other words, nobody’s making you eat 12 bowls of raw kale.) Dr. Steinmetz says raw produce may provide a slight edge over cooked in some cases, but your main concern should be getting enough of either. The same goes in the fresh vs. frozen vs. canned debate: In the end, it really doesn’t matter all that much.

‘Gimme 5’

The National Cancer Institute’s official dietary guideline, nationally promoted as the “5 a Day for Better Health” program, is a minimum of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. (For men eating the median 2,270 calories a day, the minimum is 7 servings.) Sadly, only one in four Americans really follows this advice. The average American eats — at most — 3.3 servings of fruit and veggies per day (not counting potato products like french fries). Women probably average even less than that.

Dr. Steinmetz’s study shows just how much we stand to gain from bringing up that average consumption of fruits and vegetables. “There is no doubt in my mind, ” says Peter Greenwald, MD, director of cancer prevention and control at the National Cancer Institute, “that Americans can substantially improve their long-term health outcomes if they’ll simply get in the habit of eating vegetables and fruit more often.”

That leaves only one question that needs to be answered: How did our mothers know?

— Denise Webb, Ph.D., RD, with Teresa Yeykal, senior research associate

Additional source: Melanie Polk, RD, director, nutrition education, American Institute for Cancer Research, Washington, DC.

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