Amy Slonim, Ph.D.
Assistant Director, Cancer Center and MSU Extension
What does the food we eat have to do with cancer prevention?
The foods we eat contain nutrients and chemical substances that may delay or prevent the development of some cancers. For example, eating a lot of fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk for some cancers.


What is it in fruits and vegetables that might help reduce cancer risks?
Fruits and vegetables contain hundreds of compounds that may be protective including essential vitamins and minerals, fiber and other plant compounds known as phytochemicals. Furthermore, most fruits and vegetables contain little or no fat.


Why is eating a high fat diet a cancer risk factor?
High fat diets have been associated with cancers of the colon and rectum. The more fat you eat, the more fat that reaches the colon. This fat can be broken down and may cause damage to cells. Additionally, the more fat you eat, the more bile that is produced. Bile is a fluid produced in the liver and excreted into the gut. There is some evidence that excess bile may cause cancerous changes in cells lining the colon.


Why are grains and dry beans recommended to lower cancer risk?
Like fruits and vegetables, grains and dry beans are good sources of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other plant compounds that may offer protection against some cancers.


Can any one food prevent cancer?
There is no perfect food that can prevent cancer or supply all nutrients in amounts needed to stay healthy. Foods contain combinations of nutrients and other healthful substances. Therefore, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, grains, and dry beans and limiting fat intake is recommended. Diet is only one factor in the cancer prevention picture. Eating only healthy foods is NOT a guarantee against getting cancer.


Do you lose the cancer prevention benefits of vegetables when you cook them?
This is not a yes or no question. It depends on the nutrient or substance in the vegetable. For example, some vitamins are changed by heat making them less beneficial. Vitamins may also leach out of the vegetable and into the cooking water. On the other hand, cooking may actually free up some substances. For example, when broccoli is cooked, some of the compounds are turned into more beneficial forms. The bottom line for cooking vegetables is:
  • Use small amounts of water.
  • Cook only until tender.


How do I begin to make changes in the way I eat?
Start simply! A few small changes can make a big difference. You may simply decide to eat a piece of fruit with your breakfast everyday, add a few vegetables to your sandwiches or use reduced fat or nonfat dressing on your salads. Make a change and stick with it until it feels comfortable. Then make another change.


What does 5 A Day mean? What is a serving of fruits and vegetables?
Experts recommend that we eat at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables, at least two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables. The slogan 5 A Day is an easy way to remember this recommendation. A serving is:
  • 1 medium-size piece of fruit such as an apple or orange
  • 1/2 cup of fruit pieces or small fruits such as berries
  • 3/4 cup of 100% fruit juice (check the label)
  • 1/4 cup dried fruit
  • 1/2 cup cooked or raw chopped vegetables
  • 1 cup raw leafy vegetables
  • 1/2 cup cooked dry beans or other legumes (such as lentils, pinto beans or kidney beans).


I get tired of the same fruits and vegetables. What do you suggest?
Try a new fruit or vegetable next time you go to a grocery store or market. Be adventurous! There are often suggestions for preparing fruits and vegetables in the produce section of grocery stores.

Here are some ideas:

  • Stuff a baked potato with chili, or stuff tomatoes with pasta salad.
  • Liven up your mashed potatoes by adding other vegetables such as chopped turnips and/or onion.
  • Mash squash or sweet potato as a side dish.
  • Add vegetables to soups and casseroles. Or, puree and add to spreads and dressings.
  • Top pancakes, waffles or toast with canned or fresh fruit.
  • Add color and crunch to sandwiches with cucumber, green peppers or carrot slices.


How can I add dry beans to my meals and snacks?
Try adding dry beans such as chickpeas or kidney beans to your salads. Include dry beans in main dishes such as tacos, burritos, chili or bean and rice dishes. Serve bean soups such as minestrone, split pea, black bean or lentil, or add beans to your soups. Use mashed beans as a dip or filling for a sandwich.


What are some simple ways to cut down on fat?
  • Use lower-fat toppings or dressings on potatoes, toast, rolls or salads.
  • Trim the fat from meat.
  • Take the skin off chicken before eating it.
  • Bake, broil, boil or pan broil meat or fish instead of frying it.
  • Skim the fat off stews or gravy before serving.
  • Use herbs and spices for flavor instead of fat when cooking vegetables.
  • Choose fruits for desserts.
  • Hold the fries! Order a plain baked potato or small salad instead.


Where can I learn more about nutrition and cancer prevention programs?
Contact your local American Cancer Society Office and/or the American Cancer Society toll free number 1-800-ACS-2345. Or, the Cancer Information Service of the National Cancer Institute has a toll-free nationwide telephone service 1-800-4-CANCER. Local Extension Offices [or Cooperative Extension Offices] listed in the phone book under county government offer programs and food, nutrition and health.