vegetables and cancerWhen your mother urged you to eat your veggies all those years ago, she probably couldn’t tell you exactly why they were so healthy—she just inherently knew they were good for you. Today, researchers are finding more and more evidence as to why vegetables need to be a staple on every plate. One new study in the Journal of Nutrition suggests that eating more vegetables can dramatically cut a woman’s risk of getting endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterine lining).

Researchers in Buffalo, New York compared health and diet histories among two groups—541 women who had endometrial cancer, and a matched number of women who had no history of cancer. The results were striking: Women with the highest amount of vegetables in their diets had a 50 percent lower risk of endometrial cancer than those with the lowest vegetable intake.

“With endometrial cancer there are several reasons why diet may be important,” explains lead author Susan E. McCann, PhD, RD, Associate Professor of Oncology in the Department of Cancer Prevention and Control at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. “One of the main reasons is obesity. Obesity is a very strong risk factor for endometrial cancer, and it’s related to diet.” Women who are overweight tend to have higher levels of estrogen, a hormone that has been implicated in endometrial cancer development. A vegetable-based diet that is high in fiber and low in fat may actually help lower estrogen levels. Also, vegetables are high in natural compounds called phytochemicals, which have been shown to help prevent cells from turning cancerous.

The researchers didn’t see much of an individual risk reduction from cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, which are thought to defend the body against cancer. However, that finding may have been due to the low overall consumption of cruciferous vegetables among the study participants, Dr. McCann says.

Diets highest in individual nutrients, such as fiber, vitamin E, beta-carotene, lutein and folate were linked to a lower endometrial cancer incidence—not surprising, considering that vegetables are naturally high in these nutrients. More surprising was that high vitamin D intake was actually associated with an increased risk of endometrial cancer. However, Dr. McCann says this might have been a chance finding and shouldn’t be cause for concern, especially given the nutrient’s many other health benefits.

Although individual nutrients like vitamin E appeared to reduce cancer incidence in the study, Dr. McCann says you won’t get the same benefit from taking vitamins or supplements. “Any one food has substances in it that we don’t know about, and you’re consuming these substances as a package,” she says. “It’s really better to eat the whole food than to take any one vitamin or nutrient, because you just can’t combine them the way nature does.”

Even getting plenty of fruits and vegetables in your diet won’t guarantee a cancer-free life, but this and other studies point to a real benefit from eating a plant-heavy diet. “A diet high in fruits and vegetables can decrease your chances of getting chronic disease, including endometrial cancer,” Dr. McCann says. “A plant-based diet is also good for weight control, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. It’s healthy for a lot of reasons.”

Yeh M, Moysich KB, Jayaprakash V, Rodabaugh KJ, Graham S, Brasure JR, McCann SE. Higher intakes of vegetables and vegetable-related nutrients are associated with lower endometrial cancer risks. The Journal of Nutrition. December 11, 2008 [Epub ahead of print].

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