While scientists often seek to identify the precise nutrients and substances that might be responsible for preventing or promoting cancer, we eat foods, not just nutrients. For this reason, groups such as the National Cancer Institute and AICR provide guidelines for an overall healthy, cancer-protective diet.
It is most realistic and practical -- not to mention more enjoyable and economical -- to focus on eating more of the foods that contain potentially beneficial substances, namely fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, than on downing individual nutrients or chemicals. Besides, much of the earliest evidence suggesting foods might help protect against cancer came from observing the typical diets of select populations in which the incidence of certain cancers was much lower than in the general population. Attempts to tease out specific nutrients that might be responsible for the protection have not been successful.
When the benefits are linked to a diet made up of whole foods, it is often difficult to say for certain that the protective effects were caused by one specific nutrient rather than by the interplay of all the potentially helpful substances (sometimes called phytochemicals) that are found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The recommendations, therefore, encourage the consumption of the whole foods rather than the single nutrients so that people don't miss out on these other potentially beneficial substances (some of which scientists may not even have identified yet).
We will review what we know so far, what we suspect, and what we don't know about some of the foods and nutrients that may help protect against cancer and those that may promote cancer. With this knowledge, you can create a diverse diet that includes more foods that may help to protect you and your family.
Foods With Emerging Promise
Compelling evidence is accumulating for the anticancer properties of more foods and food components. For example, the antioxidants in tea, called catechins, may inhibit the growth of cancerous cells. Green tea contains more of these antioxidants than black tea, possibly because it is subject to less processing. One catch: To release about 80 percent of its catechins, you must steep your tea for about five minutes.
Red wine is rich in phytochemicals, particularly compounds called polyphenols, which include catechins and resveratrol. These anticancer antioxidant compounds are found in the skin and seeds of grapes. And garlic contains organic allyl sulfur compounds that seem to help slow or prevent the growth of tumor cells.
We know vitamins are beneficial in the fight against cancer, and we will review which ones and how in the next section.
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