PROTECT YOURSELF AGAINST CANCER: A DIET GUIDE ESPECIALLY FOR WOMEN

(Part 1 of a two-part series on diet and cancer prevention for women and men.)

In honor of Mother's Day, this feature is dedicated to all the morns and daughters out there. Because cancer is the number two killer of women, keeping cancer at bay is half the battle toward a strong, healthy body. What can you do to protect yourself? Plenty. Read on to find out your best lines of defense against specific cancers.

Breast and Ulterine Cancers
Body Weight Woes. Maintaining a healthy body weight reduces the risk of many cancers, including these two. One large study of nurses found that "apple-shaped" women are 34% more likely to develop breast cancer than women who are "pear-shaped," especially those who have gone through menopause and never taken hormone replacement therapy. Moreover, experts believe those who gain significant weight in adulthood are more likely to develop uterine (endometrial) cancer. Obesity may increase risk by directly affecting circulating estrogen levels.

Though long thought to be a risk factor, dietary fat does not appear to be what links weight to increased risk of breast cancer. In fact, monounsaturated fats may be protective. Exercise may be even more important. Research shows that women who exercise regularly are 30% less likely to develop breast cancer.

EN's Rx: Exercise regularly most days of the week and keep fat intake moderate with an emphasis on monounsaturated fats like olive oil.

Hormone Controversy. Both breast and endometrial cancers are sensitive to high circulating levels of estrogen, which may contribute to tumor growth. Research suggests fiber plays a weak yet influential role. Dietary fiber helps bind estrogen and carry it out of the body, reducing circulating levels.

An increasingly controversial debate has emerged over the estrogenic effect of soy foods. Some studies have demonstrated an anti-estrogenic effect in premenopausal women, while others have shown the opposite in postmenopausal women, prompting concerns over soy's effect on estrogen-sensitive cancers.

The interest in soy centers on two isoflavones, genistein and daidzein, which are structurally similar to estrogen. Scientists believe these compounds attach to estrogen receptors, blocking the real, more potent estrogen and thereby lessening the risk of developing an estrogen-dependent cancer. Soy products also contain other protective compounds, including saponins, phytosterols, phenols and protease inhibitors.

Yet many experts caution women with breast cancer or with a history of the disease to limit soy intake. Why? They fear it might actually fuel cancer cells by imitating estrogen a little too closely.

EN's Rx: Up your fiber intake; eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Most experts recommend 25 grams of soy protein a day to help prevent hormone-sensitive cancers. Opt for isoflavone-rich tofu, miso, roasted soybeans and soy milk.

Evidence Against Alcohol, For Folate. Scientists have discovered resveratrol (found in the skin of red grapes and in red wine) to be a potent cancer inhibitor, especially for breast cancer. But, health agencies still warn against alcohol's overall detrimental effect on breast cancer. Large studies show an increased risk with as little as one drink a day.

The B vitamin folate may reduce that risk. In a study of more than 3,000 women with breast cancer, the risk from alcohol was strongest in women who got less than 300 micrograms of folate a day. Those taking at least 460 micrograms a day from supplements had less risk.

EN's Rx: Keep alcohol to less than one drink a day, especially if you have a family history of breast cancer. Eat foods rich in folate (asparagus, broccoli, orange juice, legumes) and take a multi with 100% of the Daily Value for folic acid.

Cervical Cancer
An inadequate intake of folate has also been linked to cervical cancer. It appears that a woman may be more vulnerable to the sometimes cancer-causing human papilloma virus when she has low blood levels of folic acid.

Ovarian Cancer
This devastating illness is the most silent of cancers, often with no symptoms until it is too late. Little research exists to link diet to prevention, except to suggest that a high-fat and high-cholesterol diet may increase risk, while eating lots of dark green and yellow vegetables may decrease risk.

Lung Cancer
Although lung cancer kills more men than women, it is quickly becoming an equal-opportunity disease. Researchers emphasize that smoking causes 90% of lung cancers. But studies show a direct correlation between lung cancer deaths and intake of animal fats, including red meat, high-fat dairy foods and poultry. Research also shows that a high intake of fruits and vegetables is protective.

EN's Rx: Limit animal sources of fat. Aim for at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables.

Overall Bottom Line
The overall cancer prevention message has changed from one that stresses what not to eat to one that emphasizes what you should eat to stay cancer-free. Researchers are convinced that a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains offers protection against cancers of the breast, colon (more on this next month), lung and possibly even the ovaries.

Next month: EN explores how men can protect themselves against cancer foes.

EN's Anticancer Shopping List: What to Buy and Why
In making out this shopping list, we've included foods that show promise for fighting cancer in general, as well as those that specifically help fend off women's cancers.

Legend for Chart:

A - Food
B - Benefit

A

B

Dark green anti-bright yellow/orange fruits and vegetables

Fiber, phytochemicals and antioxidants to Squelch free
radicals and help rid body of conjugated estrogen and bile
acids. Vitamin A and lutein linked to lower breast cancer
risk.

Red grapes

Phenols (antioxidants), resveratrol (cancer inhibitor).

Cruciferous vegetables: cabbage, kale, cauliflower, Brussels
sprouts

Isothiocyanates with anticarcinogenic properties.

Asparagus, broccoli, O.J.

Folate protects against alcohol damage.

Tomatoes

Lycopene may help fight endometrial cancer.
Olive oil

Squalene, a phenol that acts as an antioxidant;
monounsaturated fat.

Canola oil

Monounsaturated fat linked to lower breast cancer risk.

Flaxseed

Phytoestrogens may block real estrogen.

Green tea

Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) may protect against skin,
colon and gastric cancers. (Black tea may provide similar
protection.)

Garlic

Appears to slow activation of cancer-causing substances.

Whole grain breads, cereals

Fiber and phytonutrients that help protect against colon,
breast and endometrial cancers.

Legumes

Fiber, folate, zinc and phytates, which may protect against
breast and colon cancers.
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By Catherine Golub, M.S., R.D.

Adapted by M.S., R.D.

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