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An interview with Karen Collins, MS, RD.

Keeping track of the foods that prevent – or cause – cancer can get pretty confusing. So to lower your risk, what should you really be doing? Filling up on fiber? Shunning nitrates? Stocking your fridge with only organic vegetables?

We got some concrete answers from Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, nutrition advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) in Washington, D.C.

Do preservatives, nitrates, food additives, and other food chemicals cause cancer?

You know, we hear a lot of news stories linking various additives and chemicals and food colorings with cancer risk. It’s certainly possible. But at this point, the evidence hasn’t shown any real connection. In fact, some preservatives seem to be antioxidants, which could mean they’re actually protecting us.

I think people can get a little too preoccupied with these theoretical connections when they would be better off focusing on better established ways of reducing their risk of cancer -- weight loss, exercise, and a healthier diet.

Why do fruits, vegetables, and plant foods seem to protect against cancer?

Plant foods probably offer protection in a number of ways. They provide thousands of phytochemicals, which are natural plant compounds. Many are antioxidants, which seem to protect and repair our DNA. Some antioxidants appear to affect cancer cells, controlling how they grow or spread. The vitamins and minerals in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans also help produce and repair DNA and control cell growth.

Some foods can have a more direct effect on specific types of cancer. For instance, plant foods contain fiber, which seems to lower the risk of colon cancer.

There’s also an indirect benefit to eating whole foods that are low in fat. They tend to be less calorically dense, so we can fill up on them without getting so many calories.

Are organic foods the best defense against cancer?

Eating organic foods is fine as an option, but it’s not necessarily preferable in terms of lowering cancer risk. You can find studies showing that organic foods are higher in nutrients and protective phytochemicals, but you can find just as many showing they're not. Although people worry about pesticide residues, not all conventionally grown, nonorganic crops contain them. Of those that do, less than 1% have them in amounts above the current strict tolerance levels.

If you prefer organic, that’s fine. But organic fruits and vegetables do cost more. So if you’re eating fewer fruits and vegetables just so you can afford buying them organic, that’s not a good idea. People shouldn’t feel like they’re putting themselves at risk if they’re eating conventionally grown foods.

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