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Antioxidants: Our Cancer Warriors

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About 40 percent of Canadians will develop cancer during their lifetime

About 40 percent of Canadians will develop cancer during their lifetime. Cancer is a big killer, but its enemy is very small: the antioxidant.

When leading researchers review research on diet and cancer, they report fruits and vegetables as the foods most likely to reduce the risk of cancer. But actually, it is tiny compounds in fruits and vegetables that help the body fight back. Antioxidants are our small but powerful
warriors against cancer.

Cancer occurs when a cell loses regulatory mechanisms and grows uncontrollably. There are many causes of cancer, including free radicals. Free radicals form naturally in the body during metabolism. Antioxidants prevent structural and functional damage to membranes, enzymes and DNA caused by these free radicals.

Antioxidants known for their cancer-fighting power include vitamins C and E, selenium and the carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein. Protective compounds found in all fruits and vegetables that also show promising evidence of reducing risk of cancer include: dietary fibre, folic acid, dithiolthiones, glucosinolates, indoles, isothiocyanates, flavonoids, polyphenols, phenols, protease inhibitors, plant sterols, allium and limonene.

What packs the biggest punch? Recent research ranks blueberries number one in antioxidant activity compared with 40 other fruits and vegetables. Scientists attribute these benefits to anthocyanins and other phytochemicals found in this fruit. Anthocyanins are responsible for the intense blue colour of blueberries.

University of Guelph researchers have reported that blueberry consumption produces elevated antioxidant levels in the blood, which may result in the reduced risk of many chronic degenerative diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Therefore, blueberry consumption appears to be an effective way of reducing cancer risk.

Eating fruits and vegetables is part of a healthy diet, as they are low in fat and salt but high in fibre and micronutrients. Health Canada has approved the health claim, "A diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables may help reduce the risk of some types of cancer." However, despite this knowledge, only 30 percent of Canadians eat the recommended five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

Whether it is even possible to consume the proper daily amounts of antioxidants and phytochemicals is greatly debated. Therefore, to ensure the body receives adequate amounts of these nutrients, some scientists and nutritionists recommend the use of supplements, nutraceuticals and functional foods.

As with all alterations to diet, it is important that consumers educate themselves to ensure that the effects of these changes are desired. Consult a nutritionist or health-care practitioner to find out how you can get an adequate supply of our little warriors, the antioxidants, which are of great importance in preventing and reducing the risk of cancer.

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