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Feature Article How Do Antioxidant-Rich Foods Help Prevent Cancer?

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Food has a tremendous impact on your health, and choosing good foods full of beneficial nutrients can help you live a better, longer, healthier life. Some of the beneficial nutrients found in fruits and vegetables are antioxidants, powerful cancer-fighting ingredients that are surprisingly widely available.

“Antioxidants that you find in food are a great way to prevent damage to your cells by free radicals, and it’s something within your control that you can do to prevent cancer,” said Abigail Galbraith, an oncology dietitian with Samaritan Cancer Program.

Free Radical Effects

Free radicals are molecules that live in your body and can cause damage to a cell’s DNA, which can lead to cancer. Antioxidants help prevent cancer because they help manage free radicals and repair cell damage.

Galbraith explains that free radicals are a natural part of the body and work together with other parts of the immune system to fight off infection. The problem is that you can develop too many free radicals with exposure to things in the environment like smoke or pollution, or even from within the body because of illness or injury.

“Everything in the body is a balance,” said Galbraith. “Antioxidants help to decrease the cell damage caused by free radicals, so eating more foods that contain antioxidants can help protect your cells better.”

Eat for Health

The best way to pack more antioxidants into your diet? Eat good food – the kind that would make your mom proud.

The American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund recommend at least five servings of a variety of non-starchy vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, kale, etc.) and fruits every day, with animal protein limited to one-third or less of your plate.

“In general a plant-based diet is what’s recommended for optimal health,” said Galbraith. “Consider meat a side and not the main part of the meal, and choose unprocessed foods. You can even choose two or three meals a week that are completely meatless to help get more plants into your diet, which will give you more of the healthy benefits.”

Galbraith reports that there is mounting evidence of all the good plants can do to protect you from cancer. Alliums (garlic, onion, leeks) protect against stomach cancer. Garlic and whole grains help protect against colorectal cancer. Non-starchy veggies and fruit protect against cancers of the mouth, esophagus, stomach and lung.

“Things that grow should go in your body,” said Galbraith. “The more you incorporate plants and the greater the variety, the better.”

Filling Your Cart

When looking for ways to add variety to your diet, make sure the different colors are all represented. Galbraith notes that fruits and veggies of the same color often offer similar antioxidants. So if kale isn’t your favorite, look to other green foods like broccoli or spinach. Instead of carrots, choose pumpkin or sweet potato. 

Galbraith also recommends eating fresh and in season when possible. Keep frozen fruits and veggies around for off-season and if it makes it easier to incorporate into meals. And don’t be ashamed of the humble apple its long shelf life and universal appeal mean even the pickiest eaters will be getting some beneficial antioxidants with every bite.

Easy antioxidant-rich foods to incorporate into your diet:

  • Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale
  • Carrots
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Winter squash
  • Tomatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Citrus fruits oranges, grapefruit, tangerines
  • Bell peppers, all colors
  • Strawberries
  • Kiwi

If you would like to learn more about cancer-fighting foods, visit a Samaritan Cancer Resource Center in Albany or Corvallis or peruse our online health library.