Published on 04/28/97

Mom Was Right: Studies Show Veggies Prevent Cancer

Your mother told you to eat all your veggies. She was giving you better advice than she knew.

"A recent study showed that lycopene intake, almost entirely from tomato-based foods, was related to a lower risk of prostate cancer," said Gail Hanula.

Hanula is a nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"Three of the four tomato-based foods studied -- tomato sauce, tomatoes and pizza -- were related to a lower risk of prostate cancer," Hanula said.

That supports a theory on why Mediterranean people have lower cancer rates. Their diets have many tomato-rich dishes. Their diets are often lower in saturated fats and higher in fiber than the typical American diets.

Lycopene, she said, is just one of more than 500 carotenoid pigments found in fruits and vegetables. It's getting a lot of attention lately. New research links lycopene and other carotenoids with reduced cancer risk.

Hanula said betacarotene has had a lot of press, too. "It was the 'wonder vitamin' of the past few years," she said. Betacarotene is the yellow-orange food pigment which the body converts into vitamin A.

Betacarotene supplements, though, haven't been shown to decrease cancer risk. It may be, Hanula said, that some other substance in betacarotene-rich foods may be the cancer preventer.

Studies have shown that people who eat at least five fruit and vegetable servings a day have clear benefits. They have lower rates of lung, prostate, bladder, esophageal and stomach cancers.

Tomatoes, oranges, carrots, sweet potatoes and winter squash have more carotenoids than white or light-colored veggies. Dark green and orange vegetables have more of the helpful pigment than others.

Georgia farmers grow many crops known for their high carotenoid content. Extension horticulturist Terry Kelley said tomatoes, squash, carrots, sweet potatoes and leafy greens grow well in south Georgia.

In 1996, Georgia growers picked 90,000 tons of tomatoes from 4,500 acres. The crop was valued at more than $43 million.

"Diets high in fruits and vegetables decrease the risk of certain types of cancer," Hanula said. "But exactly why isn't known."

Don't just eat the same fruit or veggie over and over, she said. Eat a variety.

"That way you're likely to get all of the nutrients you need for good health," she said. "And you get other substances which might protect against cancer."

Vegetables are low in calories, rich in vitamins and high in fiber.

"They're nutrition bargains," Hanula said. "A medium carrot has 30 calories and provides enough vitamin A for two days."