Color Your Diet with Foods to Prevent Cancer

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Eating richly colored vegetables and fruits can reduce cancer risk

ANN ARBOR, MI - The jury may be out on whether a low-carb diet is the best way to lose weight. But moderating the carbohydrates you eat could help prevent cancer.

"It's very clear for all the top cancers that diet has an influence on your risk of getting cancers," says Mack Ruffin, M.D., M.P.H., professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan Health System and a member of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

If your dinner plate is filled with all-white, starchy foods, take note: Not only is the food plain, but it has fewer cancer-fighting vitamins and minerals and is loaded with calories.

"So you're lacking all of those protective agents and you're at risk for eating too many calories. The risk is about the same if you were eating micro-concentrations of dioxin or other pharmaceutical or other pesticide agents that might be harmful," Ruffin says.

Instead, Ruffin suggests bringing color to the dinner table through vegetables and fruits in the yellow, green, red and orange families. Fruits and vegetables contain thousands of micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals from the plants. These micronutrients have an antioxidant effect, reducing the amount of chemicals produced in the body. The nutrients, including vitamins A, B and E, carotenoids, selenium and calcium, work individually and together to protect your body.

The more richly colored vegetables pack more protective ingredients. So mashed potatoes won't cut it. Look for spinach, broccoli, carrots and deep-hued berries such as blueberries or strawberries.

"It's amazing when you walk into a grocery store how much color there is in the fruit and vegetable section and how much lack of color there is everywhere else. So if you shop by color and try to mix that, you'll really make a big difference," Ruffin says.

And no, taking a vitamin or mineral supplement is not the same. "When your diet has thousands of chemicals that make a difference, there's no way to take a pill or handful of pills and get the same protective effect as a diet that's high in fruits and vegetables and lower in calories," Ruffin says.


Since obesity is linked to a higher risk of cancer, controlling calories is key. A plant-based diet, filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, will also help control weight, as well as prevent heart disease and diabetes. Ruffin suggests including moderate physical activity in your daily routine as well.

"Try to eat fewer calories, more fruits and vegetables, fewer carbohydrates, and balance that with physical activity so you're in a nice energy balance," he says. "Right now, almost all of America is in an energy overbalance. We're getting way too many calories in and not enough calories out. You have to balance that."

Shopping tips

Ruffin offers these suggestions for making smart choices at the store:

  • Look for fruits and vegetables with rich color and incorporate a variety of colors into your diet.

  • Buy canned or frozen fruits and vegetables. They have the same nutrients as the fresh stuff and are readily available year-round.

  • Avoid grocery shopping when you're hungry, which leads to impulse buying.

  • Stay away from processed carbohydrates, which add no nutritional value beyond calories.


Written by Nicole Fawcett