Feb. 19, 2003 -- Eating more than just an apple a day may do much more than keep the doctor away. In fact, eating a lot of fruit as a child may reduce the risk of cancer as an adult. A new study shows that children who ate a diet rich in fruit were less likely to develop some common cancers up to 60 years later.
Although previous studies on adults have shown that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables might lower the risk of some cancers, researchers say this is the first study to look at the link between childhood diet and cancer risk later in life.
The findings appear in the March issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
In the study, researchers followed a group of nearly 4,000 men and women who were surveyed about the foods they ate as children living in Scotland and England between 1937 and 1939. By July 2000, 483 cases of cancer had been diagnosed in this group, with the most common being lung and bowel cancers in men and breast, lung, and bowel cancers in women.
After taking into account other factors known to increase cancer risk, such as age, gender, and high calorie intake, researchers found the more fruit the men and women ate as children, the lower their risk was for having cancer as adults. Compared with those who ate the least fruit as children, those who ate the most were about 40% less likely to get cancer 60 years later.
A high fruit intake was also linked to a lower risk of death overall, but the association wasn't as strong.
No clear association between vegetable intake and cancer risk was found. Researchers say it was common to boil most vegetables in the 1930s, which might explain this lack of benefit. Prolonged boiling of vegetables is known to deplete the nutrients found in fresh vegetables.
Researcher Maria Maynard, MD, of the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in London, and colleagues say a variety of nutritional factors might explain fruit's protective effects, such as their high antioxidant, fiber, and vitamin content. But when they looked at the cancer-fighting impact of vitamins C, E, and beta carotene separately, no single nutrient emerged as the winner.