Produce Power: Cancer-Fighting Carrots, Tomatoes, and Beans

It has been widely accepted that head and neck cancers are best prevented by avoiding alcohol and tobacco, but now there is more evidence that eating a healthy diet can also help. A new study found that people with the highest intake of fruits and vegetables had the lowest risk of head and neck cancers.

The study, published in the International Journal of Cancer, used data collected through the National Institutes of Health–American Association of Retired Persons (NIH–AARP) Diet and Health Study. Information about diet and health-related behaviors from more than 490,000 people from the larger study, all 50 to 71 years old, was included in the new study.

Eating vegetables and fruits protects the mouth and throat

During four to five years of follow-up, 787 people were diagnosed with head and neck cancers, which include cancers of the mouth, throat, and larynx. People who ate the most fruits and vegetables were the least likely to develop head and neck cancers: their risk was 29% lower than in people with the lowest intake, who had the highest risk. A closer analysis revealed that vegetables were more protective than whole fruits, and fruit juice had no protective effect.

The following fruits and vegetables appeared to be especially protective against head and neck cancers: legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), fruits in the rose family (apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums, and strawberries), fruits in the nightshade family (tomatoes and peppers), and carrots.

How much and how many servings?

The people with the lowest fruit and vegetable intake were eating an average of 1.5 servings per 1,000 calories every day. Since a typical older adult eats about 1,900 calories per day, this translates to 2.85 servings per day. People with the highest intake and lowest risk of head and neck cancer were eating 5.8 servings per 1,000 calories per day, or about 11.2 servings daily—a little more than the 5 to 9 servings per day recommended by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its Food Guide Pyramid.

The USDA defines a serving as half a cup of cooked legumes, one medium-sized fresh fruit, half a cup of cut fruit, one cup of raw leafy vegetables like lettuce, or half a cup of other cooked or raw vegetables.

Eat them for good health

“Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol use protects against head and neck cancer,” commented lead study author Dr. Neal Freedman of the National Cancer Institute. “Our results suggest that increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables may also contribute to reduced head and neck cancer risk and add support to current dietary recommendations to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.” These same recommendations can reduce the risks of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, including some other cancers, such as breast, colon, lung, and stomach cancers.

Maureen Williams, ND

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