Protective Nutrients

One key to the role of diet in preventing cancer may lie in an antioxidative capacity, or a nutrient's ability to deactivate harmful chemicals in the body known as free radicals. Free radicals are formed daily through normal body processes. Environmental pollutants such as cigarette smoke, automobile exhaust, radiation, and herbicides also generate free radical precursors. These unstable compounds can attack, infiltrate, and injure vital cell structures. Fortunately, our bodies have natural control systems that deactivate and minimize free radical reactions within the cells. These natural control systems involve many vitamins and minerals, including these:

  • Carotenoids. These precursors of vitamin A are found in plants and then converted into vitamin A in the body. Beta-carotene, as well as the more than 40 other carotenoids found in orange and green fruits and vegetables, helps prevent the formation of free radicals. Some of the best sources include carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, kale, apricots, and cantaloupe. (If you eat too many carotene-rich vegetables and fruits, your skin might turn yellow. If it does, simply cut back.)
  • Vitamin C. This vitamin guards against harmful reactions within the cells. The best sources include kiwi, citrus fruits, broccoli, green and red peppers, and strawberries. The body's tissues become saturated with vitamin C at about 200 milligrams a day, an amount easily attainable by eating the recommended four cups of fruits and vegetables.
  • Vitamin E. Vitamin E protects the cell walls from free radical damage. Be sure to include some foods rich in vitamin E when balancing your daily calorie budget, but consume them carefully because they are calorie dense. The best sources are vegetable oils (and foods made with them, such as salad dressings), almonds, peanuts, sunflower and sesame seeds, wheat germ, and whole grains (see table 2.3). The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin E is 15 milligrams.
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