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Fighting cancer with your knife and fork

Next time you prepare your grocery list, don’t forget to write down “antioxidants.”

But don’t look in the store for a clearly labeled bottle. Antioxidants are hidden inside fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, and researchers say you help increase your protection against many types of diseases, including cancer, by serving plant foods generously.

Collision course

Simply stated, antioxidants are friendly scavengers that work in your bloodstream. They include vitamins A, C and E; flavonoids; carotenoids like beta carotene; and lycopene.

These compounds appear to rid the blood of free radicals—unstable, highly active oxygen molecules that come from our own cellular activity as well as from pollutants like smog and tobacco smoke. Free radicals are thought to damage the membranes and DNA of healthy cells—the first step in the chain of events that can lead to cancer.

A nutritious diet featuring fruits and vegetables can help neutralize free radicals. That’s important, since as many as one-third of all cancer deaths are believed to be caused by dietary factors, according to the American Cancer Society.

The National Cancer Institute recommends eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day.

Nutrition basics

Get your antioxidants from foods rather than supplements, the NCI adds. Fruits and vegetables contain a complex assortment of compounds that seem naturally balanced to benefit your body. Single-substance pills, on the other hand, have a questionable record of cancer protection in clinical trials.

Although these experts admit that no one is sure how plant foods work to help prevent diseases, here’s where you can find these antioxidants:

  • Vitamin A: liver, dairy products, eggs and fish liver oil. It is also converted from carotenoids, found in dark red, green and yellow vegetables. Provides general antioxidant protection.
  • Vitamin C: citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, leafy vegetables, strawberries and potatoes. Evidence suggests it fights stomach cancer.
  • Vitamin D: milk, fatty fish, egg yolks and liver. Early evidence shows a link between vitamin D and lower rates of prostate cancer.
  • Vitamin E: vegetable oils, sweet potatoes, avocados, nuts, sunflower seeds and soybeans. Studies show a link to lower rates of prostate, oral, stomach and throat cancers.
  • Allyl sulfides: garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, chives and scallions. Some studies indicate these foods suppress cancer development by reducing tumor size.
  • Carotenoids: apricots, papaya, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, mangoes, carrots, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, corn and cantaloupe. Evidence suggests they help fight esophageal, lung, stomach, breast, cervical and colon cancers.
  • Catechins: green tea and berries. Researchers have linked green (and black) tea to lower levers of breast, lung, colon, gastrointestinal and skin cancers.
  • Flavonoids: parsley, carrots, citrus fruits, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, soybeans and berries.
  • Folate: avocados; bananas; orange juice; cold cereal; asparagus; green, leafy vegetables; dried beans; peas; and yeast. May provide protection against breast, cervical and colon cancers.
  • Lycopene: cooked tomato products, watermelon and pink grapefruit. Strong evidence suggests that it fights prostate cancer as well as precancerous lesions that could lead to cervical cancer.