Plant-Based Diet Key
To Warding Off Cancer - Phytochemicals Crucial
By Karen Collins, R.D.

SPECIAL TO MSNBC - Research continues to support the importance of a balanced, plant-based diet, even though science is not yet able to identify with certainty how each specific component of such a diet works.
That's the bottom-line conclusion of the latest research conference sponsored by the American Institute for Cancer Research. This year,s conference focused on phytochemicals, a wide variety of substances that occur naturally in plant foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes (dried beans) and grains. Several presentations focused on phytochemicals in onions and garlic. In test tube studies, some of the compounds were able to block the formation of a major cancer-causing substance, and helped maintain normal cell growth and structure that are important to prevent the cells from developing into cancer. But many conference speakers expressed concern that selectively boosting intake of individual phytochemicals based on laboratory research like this is inappropriate until we know how they work in people.
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Research presented at the conference also suggests that onion and garlic may help people lower their risk of cancer if consumed daily or perhaps weekly. But other findings presented on phytochemicals in these and other vegetables and fruits demonstrated that the effect of these substances cannot be simply related to the amount consumed. Rather, it is influenced by how they are processed and by interactions with the rest of what we eat. For example, several researchers reported on lycopene, found in dark red fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, red grapefruit and watermelon. Lycopene may help in prevention of prostate and other cancers. Contrary to some popular assertions that vegetables are always most valuable when eaten raw, lycopene from tomatoes is most usable by the body when it comes in processed products like tomato juice, soup and sauce. Other reports at the conference related to antioxidants, compounds that prevent or repair damage to cells caused by highly reactive substances produced in our bodies by pollution, sunlight, and normal body processes. While some consumers are familiar with the antioxidant capabilities of nutrients such as vitamins C and E, research has identified many phytochemicals that are potent antioxidants, including those found in large amounts in raisins, plums, most berries and whole grains.
Throughout the two-day conference, scientists repeatedly emphasized the need for additional research to accurately identify which phytochemicals (and in which forms) can actually help prevent cancer or slow its growth. In the meantime, researchers underscored the distinction between the need for further study before isolated phytochemical supplements are used and the strong support that already exists for the cancer preventive potential of a predominantly plant-based diet. Researchers continued to support the conclusions of the American Institute for Cancer Research,s report on diet and cancer prevention " that a balanced, plant-based diet could bring about a major drop in cancer rates. The key, they say, is to make a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains the major part of what we eat each day.
Karen Collins is a registered dietitian with the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.