Eating to Prevent Disease -
Pair low-fat protein with "functional foods" for good health

While there are no "magic bullets" for warding off disease, a consensus of current research indicates that diets low in fat and rich in fruits, grains and vegetables exhibit protective properties against cancer and other diseases. Today's headlines are filled with mentions of antioxidants, phytochemicals and fiber, but what are the facts behind these buzzwords?

"Antioxidants are specific vitamins, minerals and other substances found in the foods we eat, which studies have shown to have cancer-protective effects. These include beta carotene, vitamin C, selenium and vitamin E," said Melanie Polk, RD, director of nutrition education for the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). According to the International Food Information Council, antioxidants have been linked to reduced risk of heart disease, strokes, cataracts, some forms of cancer, as well as a slowing of the aging process. Foods rich in antioxidants include whole grains, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, carrots, yams and tomatoes, among others. "You get these cancer-protective antioxidants from eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains," said Polk, "You can do little things to increase your intake of these foods, such as chopping up vegetables and adding them to spaghetti sauce."

Phytochemicals are naturally occurring substances found in foods which have a variety of protective functions. These include allyl sulfides, indoles, isoflavones and phenolic acids, which have been shown to have a variety of protective effects such as guarding against cell damage and decreasing the cancer-causing effects of certain substances. The AICR reports that some phytochemicals may actually appear to stop a cell's conversion from healthy to cancerous -- now that's a reason to eat your veggies!

Dietary fiber is the portion of plant-based foods that cannot be completely digested. There are two types of fiber, insoluble and soluble, and most fiber-rich foods contain both. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, providing bulk that hastens the transit of wastes through the colon and helps dilute possible carcinogens. Because soluble fiber dissolves in water, it aids the digestion and absorption of food and has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels. Foods high in both soluble and insoluble fiber include wheat and oat bran, beans, apples, potatoes, broccoli, carrots and barley.

Diets low in fat and high in fiber have been linked to lower incidences of heart disease and certain cancers. It's easier than you might think to find ways to decrease the fat and increase the fiber in your diet. Polk suggests using ground turkey breast in chili, adding beans and corn for extra fiber. "Or try a new grain such as quinoa topped with stir-fried turkey cutlets and vegetables," said Polk.

Together, foods containing these protective substances are often referred to as "functional foods." The American Dietetic Association defines functional foods as "any modified food or food ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains." New "functional foods" and their protective benefits are still being discovered. So that consumers don't miss out on the preventative substances that are still to be discovered, experts recommend that daily intake come from real foods, not supplements.

In short, lifestyle does play a role in decreasing the risk of cancer and other diseases. Polk recommends daily exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a diet low in fat and generous in servings of fruits, vegetables and grains. "With turkey, you can maintain a diet that is low in fat and full of flavor," said Valerie Erb Tully, consumer affairs specialist for the National Turkey Federation, "Substitute lean turkey for higher fat proteins in your favorite dishes, or combine it with vegetables and grains for a complete meal." A good example is Tuscan Turkey Cutlets made with cannelloni beans, spinach, tomato, carrots, onion and garlic. "Tuscan Turkey Cutlets are low in fat, high in fiber and offer a generous variety of protective vegetables and beans for good health," Polk said.

Examples of Protective Substances in "Functional Foods"

Component Where It's Found Potential Benefit
Bifidobacteria yogurt, other dairy May enhance gastrointestinal system function
Allyl garlic Regular intake may reduce risk of cancer and lower blood pressure
and cholesterol levels
Catechin tea May reduce risk of cancer
Lycopene tomatoes, tomato sauce, red grapefruit,
red peppers
High intake may reduce risk of prostate and cervical cancers
Beta glucan oats May help reduce risk of cardiovascular disease
Isoflavones soy Regular consumption may lower cholesterol in individuals
with high cholesterol levels
Insoluble fiber wheat bran, brown rice, bananas, lentils, nuts May help reduce risk of breast and colon cancers
Source: International Food Information Council