Can You Eat Yourself Healthy?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

The Anticancer Diet

By Alison Palkhivala
WebMD Feature

Sept. 3, 2001 -- "When it comes to risk for cancer, says David Heber, MD, PhD, the most important thing for women to do is to control their weight."

"One out of two women are overweight, and one out of three are obese," he says. "Estimates are that about 80% of women over 50 are overweight or obese. Many of them are on a diet, but the problem is that after menopause, fat goes to the upper body where it accumulates in the breast tissue. So, it's a risk factor for breast, ovarian, uterine, colon, and kidney cancer."

Heber, professor of medicine and director of the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Human Nutrition, recommends older women target a healthy body fat percentage of 22%-28% while younger women should shoot for 15%-20%. A personal trainer at a gym can measure your body fat content.

Anna H. Wu, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has conducted plenty of research on the role of diet and cancer in women. Her findings indicate that limiting fat intake to 20% of your total daily calories reduces the amount of the female hormone estrogen in your body, and thus reduces risk of breast cancer.

Have You Eaten Your Purple Today?

"Ancient man ate over 800 varieties of fruits and vegetables, and modern man eats three: iceberg lettuce, French fries, and ketchup," says Heber, author of the book What Color Is Your Diet?. The problem with such a limited diet, he says, is that "studies from the American Institute of Cancer Research ... show that populations that eat over seven servings a day of fruits and vegetables have a 50% reduced risk of the common forms of cancer."

Heber has developed a simple system to help people eat well: Just look at your plate.

"If your plate is beige and brown, you're in deep trouble," he says. You need to eat at least one food from each of the following color groups every day:

Red: Foods in this group include tomatoes and tomato products and contain lycopene, which inhibits breast cancer growth and has an antioxidant effect.

Green: Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and bok choy are all in the green group of foods, which contain isothiocyanates. These stimulate enzymes in the body to scavenge and remove pesticides and carcinogens.

Green/yellow: These foods include spinach, kale, collard greens, and mustard greens, and contain lutein, which helps prevent blindness and inhibits tumor cell growth.

Orange: Packed with beta and alpha carotenes, foods like butternut squash and carrots have anti-cancer and antioxidant effects and are good for vision.

Orange/yellow: This is the citrus fruit group and should be eaten for their flavonoids and vitamin C content. The skins of these fruits also contain limonoids, which fight cancer.

Red/purple: This popular food group includes red wine, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries. They contain polyphenols, which fight cancer.

White/green: This group, which includes garlic and onions, contain cancer-fighting allyl sulfides.

"By eating from each of these seven groups every day," says Heber, "you reduce your caloric intake and you benefit in terms of cancer." His book contains menus and recipes that cover two weeks of eating right.

How Super Is Your Food?

Dubbed "America's Healthiest Mom" by the Ladies' Home Journal, author, personal trainer, and lifestyle trainer Jyl Steinback has just finished her eighth cookbook, Superfoods: Cook Your Way to Health, published by QVC. She agrees with Heber that many of the most colorful foods are the healthiest, and her focus is also on eating lots of fruits and veggies.

"Superfoods are everyday foods with an abundance of nutrition," she says. "My [food] pyramid is a little different from the regular pyramid. ... The bottom level is fruits and vegetables. You need to have six to nine [servings of] fruits and vegetables a day. ... Excluding bodybuilders and things like that, all the [protein] you need is about two servings a day."

That may sound like a lot of produce, but keep in mind that a serving of fruit or vegetables is half a cup cooked or one cup raw. A serving of protein is about the size of a deck of cards, and servings of side dishes like potatoes and rice should be about the size of your fist.

For cancer prevention, Steinback's top superfoods are garlic, soybeans, cabbage, ginger, carrots, celery, parsley, and licorice (not licorice candy -- there's no real licorice in that).

There's been some controversy on whether soy really does protect women from breast cancer. Both Steinback and Heber say it does. Wu's research has also shown that eating soy, like keeping your weight down, may also reduce levels of female hormones and thus reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Making the Change

Are you a junk food and soda addict who wants to eat right? Steinback recommends making changes that you can live with. If you can't survive without soda, limit yourself to one a day. Love juice? Stick to juices that have actual fruit juice as the first ingredient and limit yourself to one glass a day or cut it with water and have two glasses a day.

Do your grocery shopping at the periphery of the store, where most of the natural products like fruits and vegetables are. Avoid high-fat, packaged, and processed food as much as possible.

Always have fruits and veggies cleaned, cut, and ready to eat in the refrigerator. Steinback even invests in pre-cut veggie trays and adds healthy dips made with fat-free cottage cheese, sour cream, or tofu.

And give it time.

"It takes 21 days to make a habit and 30 days to make a lifestyle change," she says.

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