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The holidays are in full swing and festive food is everywhere. "While these foods are delicious to eat, some have the added bonus of containing cancer-preventing nutrients," says Stephanie Meyers, MS, RD/LDN, a nutritionist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Pumpkin can be a holiday staple for many families. And for some, it may be one of the tastiest ways to enhance the body's own natural cancer fighting ability, notes Meyers. Pumpkins are packed with nutrients called carotenoids, which have been linked to the prevention of colon, prostate, breast, and lung cancer.
Although many people only eat pumpkin when it is made into a pie, it can also be enjoyed in a variety of other ways, including roasted pumpkin, pumpkin soup and high fiber pumpkin muffins or bread.
It's the bright color that gives pumpkins their rich nutrients, so look for other orange vegetables, like sweet potatoes, carrots, and butternut and acorn squash. All are also high in carotenoids.
Meyers stresses, "It is more beneficial to consume carotenoids from whole foods rather than from supplements, because carotenoids in pill form do not appear to have the same protective properties."
In fact, that is true of many of the nutrients in foods. Eating whole foods typically provides greater health benefits than taking a dietary supplement.
Apples are another food packed with cancer preventing properties, thanks to the nutrient quercetin, which protects DNA in the body's cells from damage that could lead to the development of cancer.
To get the most protection against cancer from apples, eat them with the skin on and not combined with sugar and fats, like in a pie.
Meyers reminds her patients that cranberries aren't just for the holidays and encourages them to eat cranberries year-round. That's because cranberries contain benzoic acid, which has been shown to inhibit the growth of lung cancer, colon cancer, and some forms of leukemia.
She recommends buying bags of cranberries now, while they are in season and at their nutritional peak, and popping them in the freezer for later. This will help ensure that the berries will provide the highest level of cancer protection whenever cooking with them — all year long.
The overall key to finding cancer-fighting foods is to look for a lot of color. Look for colorful produce like pomegranates, tomatoes, eggplant, grapes, cherries, and turnip. The brighter and richer the pigment, the higher the level of nutrients.
"You want to load up your plate with as much colorful plant-based foods as you can," explains Meyers. "Eating a plant-based diet all year long is the best way to help lower your risk of cancer."