omega oils, diet and cancerEating a high-fiber, fruit- and vegetable-heavy diet might dramatically reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer, according to a recent study in the journal, Nutrition and Cancer. Cervical cancer is most often linked to risk factors such as infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), smoking, use of oral contraceptives, and having multiple sexual partners. Now researchers are finding that diet might also play an important role. 

The study focused on 239 women being treated for cervical cancer at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. Researchers compared these subjects to 979 randomly selected control patients from the same hospital. All of the women filled out a questionnaire detailing their health and medical history. The women were also asked about the types of foods and drinks in their diet before their cancer diagnosis.

Women with the highest intakes of dietary fiber, vitamins C, E, and A, alpha- and beta-carotene, lutein, and folate had a 40 to 60 percent lower risk for cervical cancer than did those with the lowest intakes of these nutrients, the researchers found. Even after adjusting for known cervical cancer risk factors, the cancer protection remained.

Antioxidants Ward Off Cellular Damage

How might these nutrients protect against cancer? They act as antioxidants—substances that ward off cellular damage caused by harmful molecules called free radicals. Also, they may prevent cells from turning cancerous and reduce the risk of viruses such as HPV, which can trigger cancer development.

The effects of these nutrients appear to be interrelated. “The fact that high intakes of such a wide range of plant-based nutrients appeared to be protective may indicate that a plant-based diet pattern, rather than a specific nutrient, decreases risk,” says lead author Chaitali Ghosh, PhD, assistant professor in Mathematics at Buffalo State College.

This study did not look at whether these same nutrients affected cancer risk when given in supplement form. It also did not determine whether the women in the study were infected with HPV. Because it can lead to cervical cancer, HPV could affect the association the study found between diet and cervical cancer. And because the researchers relied on participants’ recollection of their diet, it’s difficult to verify the findings.

Significant Benefits from Eating Healthy

Still, the results point to a significant benefit from eating a healthy diet. “A diet rich in plant-based nutrients may be important in reducing the risk of cervical cancer,” Dr. Ghosh says. “Thus, a variety of fruits and vegetables should be included in a person’s diet to obtain the maximum protective effect of these nutrients against cancer.”

Future research should look at the effects of individual nutrients on cervical cancer, and take into account whether participants have HPV, the authors write.

Ghosh C, Baker JA, Moysich KB, Rivera R, Brasure JR, McCann SE. Dietary intakes of selected nutrients and food groups and risk of cervical cancer. Nutrition and Cancer. 2008;60:331-341.

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