Fruit and vegetables: cancer-fighting foods

Dietitian, Berna Harmse, explains the reason why fruit and vegetables are cancer-fighting foods.

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Research is confirming that the small choices you make each day have an important impact on your cancer risk. What you eat; how you prepare your food; whether you exercise, manage your weight, drink alcohol or smoke – these simple decisions make an imperative difference.

An astonishing 60-70% of cancer cases have been directly linked to daily dietary and lifestyle habits. Smoking contributes to the development of 30% of all cancers and dietary factors to 35%. Certain dietary factors are protective against cancer, while others can contribute to the development thereof. The primary source of these protective factors appears to be in fruit and vegetables.

The super power of fruit and vegetables: antioxidants

To know what antioxidants are, you need to know about free radicals. Free radicals are all around us, a natural product of our living. However, some factors (smoking, drinking, high-fat diets, too much sun, too much exercise, and too many pollutants in the air that you breathe) cause your body to produce more radicals than are needed. And when produced in excess, these free radicals can start to damage your cells and tissues. In fact, free radicals have been implicated as the cause of many diseases, including heart disease, cancer, arthritis and age-related disorders. The good news is that antioxidants offer some means of protection for your body. Antioxidants are able to mop up the aggressive molecules before they cause the damage. Ideally, you should have enough antioxidants to deal with the free radical damage, but in cases when the body is overwhelmed (times of stress), you require extra antioxidants. Commonly known antioxidants are vitamin A, beta-carotene, vitamin E, vitamin C and selenium.

Easy, 1 2 3

The following example of a two-day meal plan shows how easy it is to implement fruits and vegetables (antioxidants).

Whole wheat toast with low-fat topping (Marmite, jam, honey, low-fat cheese)

Yoghurt with chopped fresh fruit (apple, banana, orange)

OR Bowl of whole wheat cereal with skimmed or low-fat milk and a handful of dried fruit (raisins, apricots, etc.)

Glass of orange juice

Light meal
Tuna, lettuce and tomato sandwich

Glass of skimmed or low-fat milk

One peach

OR Bowl of pasta with tomato-based sauce

Side salad (lettuce, tomato, peppers, cucumber, feta cheese)

Main meal  
Glass of fruit cocktail juice

Grilled chicken breast with jacket potato

Two or more tablespoons of stir-fried mixed vegetables (carrots, broccoli, peppers, cabbage, etc.)

Side salad (lettuce, tomato, cucumber)

OR 125ml red wine or grape juice

Grilled or baked fish with savoury rice

Two tablespoons of both peas and carrots

Stewed fruit with custard or low-fat yoghurt

More ways to include fruit and veg in your diet

  • Include one or two with each meal.
  • Snack on them when you’re hungry between meals.
  • Choose a variety of fresh, frozen, dried and canned products.
  • One glass of fruit juice equals two portions of fruit.
  • Make your own fruit or vegetable juice or smoothies using fresh fruit and vegetables and low-fat or skimmed milk.
  • Be adventurous – add to pasta, rice, soup and stews.
  • Prepare stewed fruit for breakfast or pudding.
  • Experiment with stir-fries using a variety of vegetables.
  • Make a veggie-spread with finely chopped vegetables and Bulgarian yoghurt.
  • Make fruit crumbles with thin layers of crumble and lots of fruit underneath.
  • Many nutrients found in fruit and vegetables are highly unstable and easily destroyed by heat or light exposure. It’s therefore important to prepare fruit and veggies in a way that retains most of their nutritional value.
  • Always use produce while they are still fresh, or store in the refrigerator until needed.
  • Eat veggies raw as often as possible.
  • Always avoid unnecessary peeling or slicing.
  • Don’t cut fruit and veg into small pieces before cooking.
  • Don’t leave chopped vegetables soaking in water for a long time.
  • When cooking vegetables, never add bicarbonate of soda. It will destroy the vitamin B content.
  • Steam and microwave vegetables instead of cooking in water.
  • If cooking in water, don’t overcook. Put a small amount of water in the pan, cover with a lid and soak until just tender.
  • When baking veggies (potato, butternut, onions, tomatoes), always leave the skin on.
Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietitian. She holds a MSc in Dietetics, and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.

MEET THE EXPERT – Berna Harmse

Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietitian. She holds a MSc in Dietetics, and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.

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