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Eat to tip the odds in your favor

Don't you wish there were a diet that could assure you a life free from cancer? Most experts agree it doesn't exist -- yet. But there is a way to eat and live that could put the odds of preventing cancer in your favor.

The dietary habits that tend to increase our cancer risk come down to too much and too little: Too much red meat, alcohol, fried foods, refined carbohydrates and sugars, and too much body fat; too few phytochemical-rich plant foods and too little exercise. (Of course, you already know you shouldn't smoke or get too much sun.)

To decrease our risk, for example, we want to eat whole grains (such as whole wheat, barley, and oats) and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Many fruits and vegetables have cancer-fighting potential. For example, lycopene, a phytochemical found in cooked tomatoes and tomato products, has been shown to slow the growth of breast, lung, and endometrial tumors and to reduce prostate, stomach, and pancreatic cancer risks.

Randall Oyer, MD, chairman of medical oncology at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., isn't afraid to say that nutrition plays a role in cancer prevention, but he cautions against making a connection within a short time frame. "What a person has been eating a year before they were diagnosed with breast cancer, for example, probably isn't as relevant as what they've been eating a decade or two before," he explains.

And most cancer researchers admit there's stronger scientific evidence for a link between diet and colon cancer, for example, than for one between diet and breast cancer -- the cancer that so many women fear the most. But we're learning more every day.

In the past year, scores of studies have been published on diet and breast cancer alone. And more and more of this research is distinguishing between the effects that certain nutrients have on women before menopause and after.

In my opinion, future studies also should look at the differences between types of fat and types of carbohydrates. Some studies have suggested that higher-fiber, high-phytochemical plant foods (which are rich in carbohydrates) may have protective effects, while refined carbohydrates and sugars may have negative ones. Others have suggested that olive oil (and monounsaturated fat) and omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce breast cancer risks.

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