'Super Foods' That May Prevent Illnesses

A colorful salad with sliced fruits and vegetables or a juicy cheeseburger and fries – Which would you choose? Every day we make nutrition choices that impact our overall health and well-being. But do we know the extent to which the foods we consume help to promote or prevent illnesses, such as cancer?

Although no one has been able to say that one specific food can fully prevent cancer, there is enough evidence to support the notion that some foods have cancer-fighting properties and may help in the prevention and treatment of about a third of the most common cancers. Likewise, some foods have been found to increase the risk of disease. By making small changes to your diet, you can be certain that you are doing everything you can to stay healthy.


Foods to Avoid or Limit

Meat: Meat is a good source of protein. However, most Americans eat far more meat than is deemed healthy. Eating large amounts of processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs and deli meats has been linked to increased risk of stomach, colorectal and prostate cancers. Red meats and poultry with skin that are cooked at high temperatures (grilled, broiled and fried) can create carcinogenic compounds that may increase the risk of cancer. For this reason, the American Cancer Society recommends limiting your intake of processed or red meats, and discourages cooking these and other high-fat protein sources at high temperatures. You can cut down your cancer risk by reducing your overall meat intake and eating red meat only occasionally.

Fat: An added benefit of reducing your meat intake is that you will be reducing the amount of unhealthy fats in your diet. High-fat diets have been linked to increased rates of cancer. However, not all fats are created equal, and while some fats can increase your risk, others may well reduce it. Fats to avoid include saturated fats and trans fats. These can be found mostly in animal products like red meat, whole milk and eggs. The best fats are plant-based and can be found in olive oil, nuts and avocados. Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, tuna and flaxseed are also good choices that help support a healthy body.

GMO: Many of us have heard of genetically modified organisms and the public concern over their safety. GMOs are organisms whose DNA has been artificially altered in a laboratory through genetic engineering. For example, high-demand crops like soybean, corn, canola and cottonseed oil are generally manipulated to be resistant to pests and herbicides. These products are then used to make many of the processed foods we eat today. Although there are conflicting views on the safety of GMO foods, the fact remains that these products have been in existence only for about the past 20 years and have undergone little testing to determine their safety. For this reason, be sure to read labels thoroughly and consider choosing organic products whenever possible.

Added Sugar: Too many sugary drinks in the diet are directly linked to weight gain and obesity, but consumption of too much “added sugars” in the diet can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, tooth decay and even cancer. Drinking sugary beverages every day for six months increases fat deposits in the liver by 150 percent, which directly contributes to diabetes and heart disease, cites an article in the February 2012 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“Being mindful of the sugar content in drinks is the best way to reduce their contribution to your daily calories consumption and avoid harming your health,” said Cathy Clark-Reyes, a registered dietitian with Baptist Health Primary Care. “Sugary drinks are empty calories. They don’t have any vitamins or minerals. Even 100 percent juice usually has no less than 15-20 grams of sugar per serving.”

Added sugar has become the biggest culprit in diets that escalate diabetes and heart disease. According to a recent study, most U.S. adults consume about 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which is far more than recommended by the medical community.

What to Eat

Antioxidants and Phytochemicals: Article after article informs us that eating an overall healthy diet including more fruits and vegetables is the key to better health, weight loss and warding off illnesses like high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes. The same holds true for many types of cancer. A body of research suggests that antioxidants and phytochemicals found in plant foods help prevent cell damage caused by oxidation and may reduce the risk of cancer. At this time, researchers are unsure of the specific compounds that might account for the reduced risk and therefore suggest a diet rich in a variety of plant foods. Antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene found in many fruits and vegetables, including berries, tomatoes and carrots. Phytochemicals are compounds made by some plants, including onions, leeks, garlic, tomatoes, whole grains, beans, herbs and tea.

Fiber and Flaxseed: Although there is little research on how dietary fiber affects cancer, diets rich in soluble fiber are recommended because they contain other nutrients that may help reduce the risk. Foods high in fiber include plant carbohydrates like oatmeal, oat bran, barley, lentils, beans and nuts. Flaxseed is the grain that tops all grains when it comes to health benefits. It provides the greatest level (26 percent) of high quality dietary-fiber of any food. Two small studies performed on patients with prostate and breast cancer revealed a correlation between flaxseed-rich diets and lower rates of cancer cell growth. In lab tests, compounds from flaxseed showed slowed cancer cell growth and helped improve certain cancer treatments.

About the Author

MARGI_FAZEMargi Faze is a member of the team at the Wellness Center at Mariners Hospital. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and is a certified yoga, Pilates, and American College of Sports Medicine group exercise instructor.

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