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Cruciferous Vegetables may Prevent Cancer

When it comes to cancer prevention, Arizona Cancer Center researcher Cynthia A. Thomson is a champion of cruciferous vegetables: cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts. They're all excellent, she says.

Thomson, an associate professor of nutritional science at the University of Arizona, evaluated data from a dietary study and showed women being treated with tamoxifen for breast cancer who ate a diet high in cruciferous vegetables had lower rates of recurrence than those who did not eat a cruciferous-rich diet.

Now Thomson is part of a local team that received $3.2 million from the National Institutes of Health to pay for a five-year study that will continue her initial work. The new research is looking at the effect of a bioactive compound found in cruciferous vegetables -- diindolylmethane -- on women being treated for breast cancer.

An expert on diet and cancer prevention, Thomson leads a local program that goes into schools giving nutrition and cancer-prevention information.

She will be speaking about new research methods in diet and cancer at the World Cancer Congress in Shenzhen, China, this month.

A Q&A with Thomson:

1. What will be your role at the World Cancer Congress?

The session I'm doing is focused on epidemiology in diet and cancer. I've specifically been asked to address the issue of diet measurement, and how what people tell us they eat may influence the associations we see. We found women tended to underreport what they eat. We looked at actual (using a test involving urine samples) versus self-report and we saw a 30-40 percent difference.

2. How do you think that research will have a practical application?

The idea here is to get the dialogue going on how we can look at dietary measurement error and improve on what we're doing. Women won't hear one day they shouldn't worry about fat and the next day they should. Maybe we'd have a more consistent, clear message to get to the public related to not just cancer and diet but cancer and disease associations.

3. So the bigger picture is that you do think cancer and diet are related.

Diet probably doesn't prevent all types of cancer. It definitely seems to have more of a role in solid tumors than other cancers versus leukemias and lymphomas. Diet accounts for about 30 percent of all cancers, that's our best guesstimate. The nice thing about diet is that we can modify it.

4. What's the best way to eat to prevent cancer?

The first thing I'd tell people is control your body weight. And do it through food choices as well as physical activity, not one or the other. Most of the evidence would suggest that both of these behaviors are important not only to weight loss but to long-term weight control.

Then I'd tell people to eat fresh. When you eat fresh foods you tend to choose things that are lower in fat, less processed, richer in nutrients, higher in bioactive compounds. Start in the produce department and fill up half your cart, or at least a third of your cart with produce.

5. Every time a study comes out on foods that may help cancer, there's a temptation for some of us to load up on them.

My advice to people is variety. Don't think there is a magic food that is going to ward off cancer.

6. Why are cruciferous vegetables so good?

There's been a lot of research about populations who eat cruciferous vegetables having lower rates of select cancers, particularly, breast, colorectal, possibly prostate, bladder cancer as well.

When you look at the American studies, we don't see a lot of protective effect of cruciferous vegetables. We think that's because when you measure cruciferous vegetables and Americans, we're eating about one-fifth of a serving per week on average. It's low. So in order to see a benefit you need to eat enough. When you look at Asian countries where they eat a lot more of these crucifers, you see much more of a protective association, especially related to cancer.

by Stephanie Innes
This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.