Take healthy cells and expose them to a damaging substance—a toxic chemical, tobacco, radiation, a virus or a bacterium-and the result may be a mutation, a permanent change in cell DNA. Expose the cells again, and you get more mutations. Eventually, the healthy cells can turn into cancer cells.

Mutations also can be triggered by breathing. digesting, moving-in other words, living, As part of metabolism, our bodies create harmful molecules called free radicals, which can damage cell DNA, cause mutations and induce cancer.

First line of defense: An anticancer diet.

Free Radical Weakeners

To combat free radicals, we need beneficial nutrients known as antioxidants. How they work…

A free radical is an unstable molecule that's missing an electron. To stabilize it, an antioxidant donates one of its own electrons, neutralizing the free radical. Problem solved...except now the antioxidant is missing an electron, so it becomes a free radical. This new free radical is less dangerous than the original one, but it still can damage cells. So you need another antioxidant to give up its electron-and so on. To get enough antioxidants, eat…

  • A rainbow of produce. Varied colors of fruits and vegetables come from antioxidant pigments called phytochemicals. Each plant food contains hundreds of phytochemicals in different combinations.

Remember "Roy G. Biv": The old mnemonic for the colors of the rainbow helps you shop for variety. Go for red raspberries, cranberries, tomatoes...orange pumpkin, papayas, yams...yellow peppers, pineapple, corn.. green grapes, asparagus, kale...blue, indigo and violet blueberries, plums and eggplant.

  • Green tea. These leaves contain antioxidants called flavonoids. Consuming green tea daily may reduce risk for various cancers, including bladder and pancreatic cancers.

Recommended: Decaffeination removes flavonoids, so opt for regular green tea rather than decaf. Aim for at least three cups daily, or take green tea extract capsules.

Estrogen Connection

The hormone estrogen affects many body functions, including menstruation and cognition. It also may promote some types of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers, although the exact mechanisms are not known. Protective foods include…

  • Cruciferous vegetables. After being used by the body, estrogen is broken down and excreted. The breakdown produces two metabolites, or chemical compounds-one that promotes breast cancer and one that does not Cruciferous vegetables contain the phytochemical indole-3-carbinol (13C), which promotes formation of estrogen's harmless metabolite in stead of its carcinogenic one.

I3C foods: Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts. Have four or five halfcup servings weekly.

  • Soy foods. Soy contains phytoestrogens (compounds that mimic natural estrogen in the body), including isoflavones.

Paradox: Some test-tube studies indicate that concentrated phytoestrogens promote breast cancer cell growth-but in real life, soy seems to protect against breast cancer. In Japan and China, where the typical diet is rich in soy isoflavones, breast cancer incidence is about one-third of the US rate.

Theory: Lifelong intake of isoflavones may reduce levels of natural estrogen in breast tissue.

Isoflavone sources: Soy milk, tofu, miso (soybean paste), tempeh (soybean cake), edamame (green soybeans) and soy nuts roasted soybeans).

Goal: One cup of soy milk or one-half cup of another soy food daily.

Caution: Limit soy foods to three servings weekly if you have a history of breast cancer, or are pregnant or nursing. Women with thyroid problems should consult their doctors before eating soy.

  • Fiber. Estrogen metabolites and toxins pass through the colon on their way out of the body. If they linger there, they can be reabsorbed by the body and cause damage. Fiber may bind to estrogen metabolites and toxins, so they are excreted before they can be reabsorbed.

Goal: Five or more servings per day. Good sources: Whole-grain bread (one slice) or cereal (typically three-quarters of a cup)...fruit (one piece or one-half cup)...vegetables and legumes (one-half cup)...nuts and seeds (one-quarter cup).

Inflammation Fighters

Inflammation is part of the normal healing process. However, when this mechanism does not turn itself off properly, inflammation becomes chronic.

Result: More free radicals and cell damage that can lead to cancer. To reduce inflammation, eat.

  • Fish. Many fish are rich in beneficial omega3 fatty acids. Omega-3s contain an inflammation-fighting component called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

Best: Three four-ounce servings weekly of cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines.

Alternative: Take fish oil supplements that provide 1,500 milligrams (mg) daily of combined EPA and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

  • Flaxseeds. Ground flaxseeds also provide anti-inflammatory omega-3s.

Bonus: Flaxseeds contain compounds called lignans that may kill some types of cancer cells.

Smart: Add one tablespoon of ground flaxseeds to your daily diet. Sprinkle on cereal or salad, or add to a fruit smoothie.

  • Turmeric. This yellow spice, commonly used in curry, contains curcumin, a compound that neutralizes free radicals and shuts down proteins that promote an abnormal inflammatory response

Use liberally: Sprinkle turmeric on pasta and rice.. add it to fish...stir into soups and salad dressings.

Why Meat and Poultry Raise Your Cancer Risk

A diet high in meat and poultry increases cancer risk. Here's why...

  • Sedentary farm animals tend to have more body fat than wild or free-range animals. High-fat meat and poultry contain more arachidonic acid, a fatty acid that promotes cell-damaging inflammation
  • Cattle often are given hormones to make them bigger. When we eat their meat, we ingest residual hormones that may stimulate cancer growth.
  • Preserved, cured and smoked meats—such as hot dogs, ham, bacon, salami and smoked turkey-contain preservatives called nitrites, which the body can convert into carcinogenic nitrosamines.
  • Grilling meat or poultry allows fat to drip onto coals, forming carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)—which smoke then deposits onto the food.

To decrease your risk…

  • Choose meats and poultry labeled "free-range," which generally contain less fat.
  • To avoid hormones, opt for poultry or pork (the USDA prohibits hormone use in these animals)...or buy beef labeled "hormone-free."
  • Select nitrite-free brands of deli meats, hot dogs and bacon.
  • When grilling, stick to vegetables, which do not form PAHs. If you do grill meat, cut off charred bits.
  • Limit serving sizes of meat and poultry to three or four ounces—about the size of a woman's palm.

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