February is a big month for health: It’s both American Heart Month and National Cancer Prevention Month. And whether we’re talking about cancer, heart disease, diabetes or other chronic diseases, healthy eating applies to all.
When it comes to cancer, we know that foods high in antioxidants are key to helping reduce cancer risk. But what are they and where are they found?
Antioxidants are the antidote to oxidative stress, according to Karen Collins, nutrition adviser with the American Institute for Cancer Research.
That oxidative stress occurs when highly reactive molecules, known as free radicals, rise to unhealthy levels. When levels are high, they create cell damage that increases susceptibility to cancer and other chronic diseases.
Free radicals come from exposure to environmental hazards like pollution and secondhand smoke. The goal is not to eliminate them all. It’s the rising levels of free radicals that trigger our bodies to amp up our complex antioxidant system and turn on cancer-protective defenses.
The health risk comes when the level of free radicals overwhelms antioxidant defenses.
Aren’t more antioxidants the answer?
Many believe that and take extra vitamins A, C and E (essential antioxidants). But it’s more than vitamins; antioxidants are found in phytochemicals, too. Phytochemicals naturally occur in plant foods.
Studies have shown links between eating more produce and lower cancer risk, but the number of antioxidants reaching the body’s cells can depend on how much is lost is cooking and how well compounds are absorbed.
Here’s the bottom line for cancer prevention: Don’t just focus on antioxidants alone. Focus on balance, variety and moderation. Choose plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses (like dried beans and lentils) and nuts.
Add variety by eating the rainbow — dark green, deep orange, white, purple, yellow and red foods. It doesn’t matter if it’s fresh, frozen or canned — they all provide benefit.
Make these the biggest portion of your eating choices, and you’ll crave less processed food, processed sugar and processed meat.
Q: Is there one food I should eat to boost my immune system?
A: There isn’t a superfood that can sweep in and do this. While you may have seen a list of superfoods, it takes a combination to boost your immune system.
The key doesn’t lie in the hands of one specific food. It takes a variety of foods to provide the right balance of vitamins and minerals.
Immune-boosting foods such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, broccoli and sweet potatoes may help lessen the severity and duration of a cold (thanks to vitamins A and C and fiber). Nuts and seeds help boost the immune cells response. Lentils, lean meat and seafood help maintain cells and build new ones as we battle infection.
Foods containing refined sugar and salt and processed meats high in saturated fat may actually harm the immune system.
White Bean Turkey Chili
If you live in an area like I do where snowstorms are fairly common in February, chili is a staple on the menu. Here’s a white bean turkey chili, from Today’s Dietitian magazine, that offers plenty of fiber and protein.
» 2 pounds lean ground turkey
» 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
» 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
» 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
» 1 (15.5-ounce) can white kidney beans, rinsed and drained
» 1 (15.5 ounce) can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
» ½ cup cilantro, chopped
» 1 cup chopped onion
» ½ cup chopped red bell pepper
» 2 cloves garlic, minced
» 2 tablespoons chili powder
» 1 teaspoon ground cumin
» 1 teaspoon dried parsley
» 1 teaspoon dried oregano
» ¼ teaspoon salt
» ½ teaspoon black pepper
» ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
» 2 bay leaves
Garnishes: (optional) 2-3 fresh limes, quartered; baked tortilla strips; 1 green onion, finely diced
Cook and stir ground turkey in a large pot over medium heat until crumbly and no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Add poultry seasoning and continue to brown the meat. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, kidney beans, pinto beans, cilantro, onion, bell peppers and garlic. Season with chili powder, cumin, parsley, oregano, salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes and bay leaves.
Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer 2 hours. Remove the bay leaves and garnish chili with multicolor baked tortilla strips, green onions and a squeeze of fresh lime juice, if desired. Serve 1 cup of chili with a side salad.
Serves 10 (Serving size: 1 cup)
Per serving: 310 calories; 27 grams protein; 31 grams carbohydrate; 8 grams fat (2 grams saturated); 60 milligrams cholesterol; 7 grams fiber; 5 grams sugars; 770 milligrams sodium
— Charlyn Fargo Ware is a registered dietitian with SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, Illinois. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @NutritionRd, or click here for additional columns. The opinions expressed are her own.