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Antioxidants: Nature's Cancer Fighters



Although there still is some debate about the cancer-fighting properties of antioxidants, the National Cancer Institute says many studies have shown that the substances may slow or possibly prevent certain types of cancers. Either way, most foods high in antioxidants also are part of an overall healthy eating plan and are suggested as part of a diet aimed at cancer prevention.

Free radicals, which can come from natural sources such as the sun or your body's own metabolism or artificial ones like pollution, attack and can damage cells. These damaged cells are more susceptible to diseases, including cancer. Antioxidants help stabilize free radicals and keep them from harming cells. This means antioxidants also play a huge role in mitigating the effects of aging and help protect skin from sun damage.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains contain the highest amounts of antioxidants. Some other foods high in antioxidants include soy, red wine and dark chocolate. Dark chocolate contains twice as many antioxidants as milk chocolate, so switch from light to dark chocolate and always enjoy it in moderation because chocolate bars are high in fat. The same rule of moderation applies to red wine.

Taking supplements has not been shown to have the same benefits as eating a diet rich in antioxidants. "It's best to look for fresh foods, those with a short shelf life," says Dr. Jayne S. Gurtler, a hemotology-oncologist at East Jefferson General Hospital. "It's better to go to nature than the vitamin store. We have 50,000 years of evolution that demonstrate the nutrients in fresh foods are the proper combination our bodies need. A pill may not contain what your body needs."

Some common antioxidants and foods that contain them include:

Beta-carotene — Oranges, sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, squash and pumpkin

Vitamin A — Liver, milk, egg yolks and mozzarella cheese

Vitamin C — Oranges, grapefruit, kiwi and strawberries

Vitamin E — Nuts, mangos and broccoli

Lycopene — Tomatoes and tomato products, watermelon, guava, papaya and apricots.

Lutein — Collard greens, spinach and kale

Selenium — (Selenium is actually a mineral, not an antioxidant, but it is a component of antioxidant enzymes.) Tuna, salmon and crimini mushrooms

Tea is another well-known source of antioxidants. A study of more than 18,000 men in China found those who drank green tea regularly were about half as likely to develop stomach and esophageal cancer than those who drank little tea. Green tea has more antioxidants and less caffeine than black teas, but both are good sources of antioxidants and contain less caffeine than coffee. A morning cup of green tea also may help reduce signs of aging and fight breakouts, promoting younger-looking, blemish-free skin. You also can get antioxidant benefits from decaffeinated tea but not herbal teas.

A few hints for getting the most antioxidant power from a cup of tea: Brew your own tea from bags rather than drinking bottled or instant teas. Release more antioxidants from dunking the bag rather than letting it sit. Add lemon, which contains antioxidants of its own.

Now that you know the benefits, relax, curl up with a good cup of tea at the end of the day or use it to help you get energized in the morning. Either way you will help your body prevent cancer.

'Most cancer is preventable," Gurtler says. "But even if you'd been diagnosed with cancer, it's vital to know that you can improve your chances of recovery by eating right, losing weight, exercising and quitting smoking. It isn't too late. Much of the damage from living an unhealthy lifestyle isn't permanent. If you make dramatic changes, you will see dramatic results."

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