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The choices you make at the grocery store have a bigger impact than just your dinner plans. Filling your plate with foods that are grown in the ground may be the best diet for cancer prevention.
An estimated 1.9 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2022, according to the American Cancer Society. While some people have a higher genetic risk to develop cancer, research shows that nearly 25% of overall cancer cases could be prevented with diet and nutrition alone. Many cancers can take 10 or more years to develop, so everyday nutrition choices are crucial in cancer prevention.
Plant-based diets are full of fruits, vegetables and legumes, with little or no meat or other animal products. In research studies, vegans, people who don't eat any animal products, including fish, dairy or eggs, appeared to have the lowest rates of cancer of any diet. The next lowest rate was for vegetarians, people who avoid meat but may eat fish or foods that come from animals, such as milk or eggs.
Plant-based foods do more than taste delicious. They are full of chemicals compounds, called phytochemicals, that protect the body from damage. Phytochemicals also interrupt processes in the body that encourage cancer production. Plant-based diets also are high in fiber, which has been shown to lower the risk for breast and colorectal cancer.
Phytochemicals offer many benefits. In addition to protecting from damage, they decrease inflammation and interrupt processes in the body that encourages cancer production.
Many plant-based foods are also high in provitamins called alpha and gamma carotene. When consumed, these vitamins can be converted to vitamin A. This nutrient is important to vision, growth, cell division, reproduction and immunity. Vitamin A also has antioxidant properties.
Nutrients and phytochemicals found in plant-based foods seem to work independently and together to decrease cancer and disease risk. This means that plant-based foods work best when eaten in combination with other foods rather than alone. One prostate cancer study showed that a combination of tomato and broccoli diet was more effective at slowing tumor growth than either tomato or broccoli alone. This demonstrates the power that nutrition has when foods are teamed together.
Plant-based diets are high in natural fiber. This has been shown to reduce cancer risk and moderate insulin levels. Young women who ate the most fiber-rich diets were 25% less likely to get breast cancer later in life, a study found. Other research finds that each 10 grams of daily fiber could lower the risk of colorectal cancer by 10%.
Healthy bacteria in the digestive track can ferment fiber and other starches to produce compounds known to help promote normal colon development and reduce inflammation. These bacteria convert some phytochemicals to more useable or active forms.
There are many delicious options in a plant-based diet. Experiment with new fruits or vegetables, or new ways to incorporate staples.
Cost can be a factor in selecting a plant-based diet menu, as fresh fruits and vegetables may be more expensive. Good alternatives are frozen fruits and vegetables. They are flash-frozen to preserve nutrients and are less expensive. Canned options are available, as well, for people with a stricter budget. Be sure to look for options without added sugar or salt.
More investigation of foods and their functional components is bound to reveal all that a plant-based diet has to offer. Until then, eating a variety of fruits and veggies prepared in numerous ways will improve your odds for preventing cancer. And don't forget to pair proper nutrition with plenty of exercise.
Grace Fjeldberg is dietitian in Nutrition in Mankato, Minnesota.
This article originally published on the blog of the Mayo Clinic Health System
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