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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Fruits, Vegetables Pack Cancer-Fighting Punch
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Huawei Zeng. Ph.D.

Remember when mom said, "Eat your vegetables and you will be healthy." Well, she was right!

We all know fruits and vegetables are good for health but do you know why? Research continues to show that fruits and vegetables contain cancer-fighting compounds.

What is cancer? Cancer is a disease of abnormal cell growth. As you know, a cell is the basic unit of life. A human body is composed of billions of tiny cells, and these cells are the basic building blocks for all the organ systems and parts that make up the body. Throughout life, our cells are in a delicate balance of cell birth and death. The maintenance of this balance is essential to stay healthy. Cancer results in an excess of cells in certain parts of the body. Often, an imbalance in cell birth and death is caused by damage to the cell's genetic material, or DNA. DNA damage can occur as a natural by-product of the body's chemical reactions involving the use of oxygen for normal energy and function. Such oxygen reactions are indispensable for life, but can produce very reactive chemical products called "free radicals" that can damage DNA if not kept in check by other protective and repair responses of the body. Exposure to environmental factors such as UV light or toxic chemicals can also contribute to DNA damage.

Current research has demonstrated that reduced cancer risk is associated with frequent consumption of vegetables, fruits and plant based products. Many fresh fruits, vegetables and plant based products contain antioxidants that detoxify or neutralize free radicals. Vitamins C, E and beta-carotene react directly with free radicals and eliminate them. Broccoli, cabbage and other green vegetables are rich in vitamin C. Vegetable oils, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and wheat germ are good sources of selenium and vitamin E. Carrots, sweet potatoes pumpkin, squash, and spinach supply beta-carotene.

More recently, scientists have discovered that certain plant compounds, which are called polyphenols, can reduce the likelihood of DNA damage. These polyphenols are found in many different kinds of plants as well.

Within plants, polyphenols are formed to protect the plant from photosynthetic stress and DNA mutation caused by free radicals. When eaten, these same polyphenols become available to our bodies for use in the fight against DNA damage.

Thus, to boost your health, it is sound strategy to include a wide variety of vegetables and fruits in generous quantities in your daily diet.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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