Simple Changes in Diet Reduce Cancer Risk

American Institute for Cancer Research
Sunday, 1 February 2004

National Cancer Prevention Month may be the right time to add a second vegetable to your dinner plate. Changes as simple as that can help to prevent dire illness, although sorry America our favorite vegetable, french fries, doesn't count.

"A diet that is high in vegetables and fruit, low in red meat, avoids excess fat, salt and sugar has the capacity to boost the body's ability to prevent or inhibit the cancer process," said Ritva Butrum, Ph.D., Senior Science Advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). A diet based primarily on plant foods can reduce cancer risk by 20 percent, and such a diet combined with physical activity and weight management boost the figure to 30 percent.

The link between such a "predominantly plant-based diet" and reduced cancer risk was demonstrated in AICR's expert panel report, Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer: a global perspective. For this 670-page report, a panel of experts reviewed more than 4,500 studies and found consistent and convincing evidence for the correlation between a diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans and lower incidence of cancer.

In the years since its publication, the conclusions drawn in that report have been supported by research conducted in universities, laboratories and clinics throughout the world. Most recently, the first results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC), which involves a half million people in ten European countries, have bolstered the conclusions of the AICR report.

How Diet Protects Against Cancer

Scientists theorize that the thousands of phytochemicals with names like lycopene, lutein and saponins as well as the vitamins and minerals found in plant foods enable the body to prevent or interrupt the cancer process. These substances have been shown to subdue free radicals before they can damage our genes, usher potential carcinogens from the body, enforce proper functioning of our cells and destroy malfunctioning cells before they can develop into tumors.

Furthermore, each plant has its individual array of phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals, and these substances from different plants interact to promote cancer-fighting activity. Scientists, therefore, advise people to eat a variety of vegetables and fruits in order to reap the health benefits they offer.

"Supplements can't give you the complex mix of natural compounds and nutrients that bolster your natural defenses against cancer. Only by eating a large variety of vegetables and fruits regularly can we support the daily battle against cancer," said Melanie Polk, R.D, AICR's Director of Nutrition Education.

Steps You Can Take

The U.S. government recommends five or more servings of vegetables and fruit each day. Since a standard serving of vegetables or fruit is generally 1/2 cup, this goal is not difficult to achieve.

AICR suggests another measure for achieving the same goal. "Look at your plate: is 2/3 (or more) covered with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans and 1/3 (or less) with animal protein? If not, add another vegetable and reduce the size of your serving of meat," said Polk.

Are some vegetables or fruits preferable to others? Unfortunately, the plant-based food Americans choose most often french fries should be discounted because processing adds harmful ingredients that offset the advantages of the original potato. Experts tell us to prefer less processed forms of vegetables.

In general, experts advise choosing vegetables and fruits with deep color dark green, yellow, orange and red. Since color often indicates the presence of phytochemicals, eating the rainbow is a good way to bolster your defenses against chronic diseases.

For more information, or to contact American Institute for Cancer Research, see their website at:

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