Can Eating Vegetables Prevent Lung Cancer?

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If you smoke, you know you’re putting yourself at increased risk of lung cancer. But if you boost the variety of fruits and vegetables that you eat, you may be able to lower those odds a bit.

Scientists in Europe report in the American Association for Cancer Research’s journal that smokers who consumed the greatest variety of fruits and vegetables lowered their risk of developing lung cancer by 23% over the study’s nearly nine year follow up. With every different type of fruit and vegetable they ate, they dropped their cancer risk by another 4%. Previous studies have linked the quantity of these foods to a lower risk of cancer, but this reduction was independent of how much fruits and greens the 452,000 study subjects ate. Among the vegetables on their plates—leafy greens, root vegetables, cabbages, mushrooms, stalk vegetables, and onion and garlic, among others, while the fruit category included fresh, dried and canned varieties.

The authors, led by cancer experts based in the Netherlands, speculate that the variety, as opposed the quantity of these foods is important in cancer prevention. That’s because these foods contain important compounds that scientists still haven’t identified as beneficial in thwarting cancer growth, so the greater the variety of these fruits and vegetables in our diet, the greater the chance that we will absorb enough of whatever cancer-fighting agents they may harbor. This variety, they say, is particularly beneficial in lowering risk of squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for 90% of cancers in the head and neck and is caused by tobacco or alcohol.

The findings shouldn’t however, give smokers free reign to light up after eating a salad. The study only identified a strong association between fruit and vegetable consumption and lung cancer risk, and isn’t proof that eating a certain diet can ward off cancer. The only proven way to avoid the disease, says the study’s authors, is to stop smoking.