Skip to main content

Cancer

Numerous early studies revealed what appeared to be a strong link between eating fruits and vegetables and protection against cancer. Unlike case-control studies, cohort studies, which follow large groups of initially healthy individuals for years, generally provide more reliable information than case-control studies because they don’t rely on information from the past. And, in general, data from cohort studies have not consistently shown that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables prevents cancer.
  • For example, over a 14-year period in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, men and women with the highest intake of fruits and vegetables (8+ servings a day) were just as likely to have developed cancer as those who ate the fewest daily servings (under 1.5). [3]
  • A meta-analysis of cohort studies found that a higher fruit and vegetable intake did not decrease the risk of deaths from cancer. [2]
A more likely possibility is that some types of fruits and vegetables may protect against certain cancers.
  • A study by Farvid and colleagues followed a Nurses’ Health Study II cohort of 90,476 premenopausal women for 22 years and found that those who ate the most fruit during adolescence (about 3 servings a day) compared with those who ate the lowest intakes (0.5 servings a day) had a 25% lower risk of developing breast cancer. There was a significant reduction in breast cancer in women who had eaten higher intakes of apples, bananas, grapes, and corn during adolescence, and oranges and kale during early adulthood. No protection was found from drinking fruit juices at younger ages. [9]
  • Farvid and colleagues followed 90, 534 premenopausal women from the Nurses’ Health Study II over 20 years and found that higher fiber intakes during adolescence and early adulthood were associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer later in life. When comparing the highest and lowest fiber intakes from fruits and vegetables, women with the highest fruit fiber intake had a 12% reduced risk of breast cancer; those with the highest vegetable fiber intake had an 11% reduced risk. [10]
  • After following 182,145 women in the Nurses’ Health Study I and II for 30 years, Farvid’s team also found that women who ate more than 5.5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day (especially cruciferous and yellow/orange vegetables) had an 11% lower risk of breast cancer than those who ate 2.5 or fewer servings. Vegetable intake was strongly associated with a 15% lower risk of estrogen-receptor-negative tumors for every two additional servings of vegetables eaten daily. A higher intake of fruits and vegetables was associated with a lower risk of other aggressive tumors including HER2-enriched and basal-like tumors. [11]
  • A report by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research suggests that non-starchy vegetables—such as lettuce and other leafy greens, broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, as well as garlic, onions, and the like—and fruits “probably” protect against several types of cancers, including those of the mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, and stomach. Fruit probably also protects against lung cancer. [12]
Specific components of fruits and vegetables may also be protective against cancer. For example:
  • A line of research stemming from a finding from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study suggests that tomatoes may help protect men against prostate cancer, especially aggressive forms of it. [12] One of the pigments that give tomatoes their red hue—lycopene—could be involved in this protective effect. Although several studies other than the Health Professionals Study have also demonstrated a link between tomatoes or lycopene and prostate cancer, others have not or have found only a weak connection. [14]
  • Taken as a whole, however, these studies suggest that increased consumption of tomato-based products (especially cooked tomato products) and other lycopene-containing foods may reduce the occurrence of prostate cancer. [12] Lycopene is one of several carotenoids (compounds that the body can turn into vitamin A) found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and research suggests that foods containing carotenoids may protect against lung, mouth, and throat cancer. [12] But more research is needed to understand the exact relationship between fruits and vegetables, carotenoids, and cancer.

Comments