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Do superfoods have superpowers?

Oncologist weighs in on cancer-fighting foods and well-rounded diets

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Blueberries are loaded with antioxidants, legumes are a rich source of B vitamins and fiber, and garlic helps support the immune system.

The popular term "superfood" refers to fruits and vegetables with nutrient content considered to be especially beneficial for good health and well-being.

But are these foods really "super?"

"These foods are 'super' in terms of supporting a well-rounded diet. Weight control, healthy diet and physical activity are all contributing factors to helping people reduce their risk of cancer," said Jennifer Crozier, MD, a hematologist/oncologist at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center. "But, no one food is going to stop cancer in its tracks. Maintaining a healthy diet is a factor in your control when it comes to cancer prevention."

Can superfoods really fight cancer?

The point is, it’s not really just about adding certain cancer "superfoods" to your grocery list. It's about knowing how a well-rounded diet can positively impact your health, reducing your overall cancer risk.

Dr. Crozier has some quick tips for incorporating fruits and vegetables into your diet:

  • Choose vegetables and fruits instead of calorie-dense foods like fries, chips and donuts.
  • Include fruits and vegetables at every meal of the day, ensuring you eat the recommended 2-½ cups of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Choose 100% juice if you drink vegetable or fruit juices.
  • When eating your fruits and vegetables, limit your intake of creamy sauces, dressings and dips.

In a study of 3,000 post-menopausal women, those who consumed 25 or more servings of vegetables weekly had a 37% lower risk of breast cancer compared with women who consumed fewer than nine vegetable servings weekly1.

Increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables helps reduce cancer risk and bonus, it’s also associated with a decreased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. The health of your brain can also get a boost from eating the right foods.

Organic or overrated?

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"Eating organic foods can reduce your risk of ingesting commercially produced chemicals," explained Dr. Crozier. "You don't need to buy everything organic, but knowing what produce is most contaminated by pesticides can help decide where to spend the extra money at the grocery store."

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, releases a list each year based on research about the amounts of pesticides in and on our food. The top 15 foods with the least pesticides are called the "Clean 15" and the 12 foods with the most pesticides are called the "Dirty Dozen." Take this list to the supermarket to know when to buy organic.

Supermarket mania

Once you're past the produce, you'll still face many choices for a healthier diet.

  • Smart carbs.

Grains are divided into two subgroups – whole grains and refined grains. Refined grains are milled, a process that removes dietary fiber, iron and B vitamins. Therefore, it's best to choose whole-grain foods like whole-grain bread, pasta and cereals (barley and oats).

  • Mighty meats.

Limit red meat and processed meats like bacon, sausage, lunch meats and hotdogs. "Fish, poultry and beans are great alternatives to red meat," explained Dr. Crozier. "When choosing red meat, select lean cuts and smaller portions."

For all meat, poultry and fish, Dr. Crozier recommends baking, broiling or poaching rather than frying or charbroiling.

According to a recent study, women eating 1.75 ounces of processed meat daily increased the risk of breast cancer by 64% in postmenopausal women compared to women who did not eat meat2.

A different study in the UK revealed people who ate 76 grams of red and processed meat per day (that's about the size of one burger) had a 20% higher chance of developing colorectal cancer compared to those who only ate 21 grams per day3.

  • Avoiding alcohol.

Skip the wine cooler and even the red wine! More than 100 studies have evaluated the association between alcohol consumption and risk of breast cancer. A meta-analysis of 53 of these studies (including 58,000 women with breast cancer) showed that women who drank more than about three alcoholic drinks per day had a 1.5 times increased risk of developing breast cancer when compared to nondrinkers4.

If you're choosing to drink alcohol, the recommendation is no more than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men.

  • Shrinking sugar. "High-sugar foods are usually highly processed and refined, low in nutrient value and also low in dietary fiber," said Dr. Crozier. "In addition, these foods appear to increase serum insulin and serum insulin-like growth factor levels, which stimulate cancer cell growth."

Limiting your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, sports drinks and fruit-flavored drinks is a quick way to reduce your sugar consumption significantly.

It’s true: superfoods are super to add to your well-rounded diet, one controllable risk factor when it comes to cancer.

"Don't forget to get screened, stay physically active and maintain a healthy weight," reminded Dr. Crozier. "In addition to your diet, there are many factors in your control and all of them contribute to reducing cancer risk."

Y Healthy Living Centers bring medically integrated programs from Baptist Health into the Y. Meet a personal health and wellness coach who can be a supportive resource, motivating you to make positive choices that will impact your overall well-being and help you move from where you are to where you want to be.

To learn more about the oncologists and dietitians involved in our multidisciplinary approach to cancer care, visit www.baptistmdanderson.com.

Sources:

1. Lynch BM, Neilson HK, Friedenreich CM. Physical activity and breast cancer prevention. Recent Results Cancer Res. 2011;186:13-42.

2. Tao MH, Hainaut P, Marian C, Nie J, Ambrosone C, Edge SB, Trevisan M, Dorn J, Shields PG, Freudenheim JL. Association of prediagnostic physical activity with survival following breast cancer diagnosis: influence of TP53 mutation status. Cancer Causes Control. 2013 Dec; 24(12):2177-86.

3. Cleveland RJ, Eng SM, Stevens J, Bradshaw PT, Teitelbaum SL, Neugut AI, Gammon MD. Influence of prediagnostic recreational physical activity on survival from breast cancer. Eur J Cancer Prev. 2012 Jan; 21(1):46-54.

4. KE Bradbury, N Murphy, TJ Key. International Journey of Epidemiology. Diet and colorectal cancer in UK Biobank: a prospective study.