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December 1, 2010 | 3 minute read

Do Fruits, Vegetables Protect Against Cancer?

People might be confused by an article published  this morning in the British Journal of Cancer — or at least by the media coverage it’s receiving.  Over in the UK, the headlines have already started:  “Fruit and vegetables do not reduce overall cancer risk”.

The review article concludes that advice on diet and cancer should include eating a healthy amount of fruits and veggies, but that it should focus on the harmful effects of obesity and alcohol intake.

There are many points in the article that agree with AICR’s expert report and its updates. But as AICR’s expert report makes clear, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is an important part of living to lower cancer risk.

AICR will be releasing a press statement to that effect shortly. The picture on fruits and vegetables and cancer may seem confusing at first, but let’s start with some basics:

Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables helps with weight control

The effect on weight is vital to cancer prevention, because there is convincing evidence that excess body fat increases risk of six types of cancer, including colorectal and breast cancer.

Not All Cancers Are Alike

The AICR expert report found probable evidence linking fruits and vegetable consumption to cancers of the mouth, pharynx and larynx, stomach, esophagus and lung (fruits only).

Unknown and Known Benefits

In laboratory research, numerous compounds in fruits and vegetables slow cancer development. As the review points out, a better understanding of how fruits and vegetables play a role in cancer development is needed to understand it’s protective effect.  Also, there are many known health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, including reducing risk of heart disease.

The review article also reflect the findings of a big study on fruits and vegetables and cancer that was published earlier this year, which suggested about 7,000 cases of cancer a year could be prevented in the UK if everyone ate an extra two portions a day.

One of the key points made in the review article is the difficulty of accurately measuring smoking and alcohol in studies looking at diet and cancer. Many of the cancers linked with fruits and vegetables having a protective effect are also linked strongly with smoking and alcohol intake. People who smoke are likely to eat fewer fruits and vegetables than people who do not smoke. Although studies try to account for smoking and alcohol intake, most experts would agree that more research is needed to untangle the effects of smoking, alcohol and fruits and vegetables on cancer development.

We are confident in our Recommendation to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables as part of a plant-based diet because this is the judgement of an independent panel of 21 world-renowned scientists who made recommendations after systematically reviewing all the evidence. You can read more about the science behind AICR’s Recommendations here.

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