If you love every variety of summer salad and can't get enough of roast vegetables in the winter, I've got good news. Those of us who are devoted to getting our "five a day" — the recommended daily serving of fruits and vegetables, according to nutritional advice — may get additional protection from aggressive forms of breast cancer, according to a new Harvard study. That's right — eating your fruits and vegetables can help prevent breast cancer. The research, published in the International Journal of Cancer, is one of the most concrete sets of proof yet that fruits and veggies are good can help protect women against this form of cancer.
The study used data from a famous set of questionnaires known as the Nurses' Health Studies, which asked thousands of nurses about their health and lifestyle. Overall, they looked at 182,145 women over 30 years dating from 1980 to 2013, and found something pretty remarkable. The scientists took into account risk factors like genetic cancer history and smoking, and found that nurses who'd eaten 5.5 servings of fruit and veg a day, or more, were significantly less likely to develop breast cancer than those who ate fewer than 2.5 servings. In fact, they had an 11 percent lower risk. That's a big jump.
This is a big deal because breast cancer continues to be a serious threat to women's health worldwide. The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2018, 40,920 women will die of breast cancer in the U.S. alone, making up 6.7 percent of all cancer deaths. Around 1,000 of those deaths will be women under 40. The scientists found that women who'd had higher fruit and vegetable intake were less likely to have HER2-enriched cancer and luminal A tumors, as well as basal-like breast cancer, which research indicates is more common among young African-American women.
Interestingly, the study found that it doesn't seem to be a matter of fruit and veg giving you more fiber. Fiber content didn't seem to have much of an effect on the results at all (though you should definitely still eat it to keep you regular). Instead, the scientists think that the servings of fruit and vegetables contributed to health because of their antioxidants and micronutrients. And the findings specifically highlighted a particular type to put on your plate: cruciferous and yellow-orange vegetables. Cruciferous veg includes broccoli, sprouts, arugula, cabbage, bok choy, kale, mustard and radishes, while we all have yellow-orange faves like capsicums, pumpkin and corn. (This is good news for the people who just really aren't that into fruit.)
If you'd like to increase your servings from your local allotment or grocery, it's important to know what a "serving size" of fruit or veg is — and it differs between types. One portion means two or three small fruits (like apricots or plums), one medium-sized fruit (like apples or pears), one portion of a large fruit (like a slice of pineapple), four tablespoons of greens, three tablespoons of cooked vegetables, and — importantly — three heaped tablespoons of pulses or beans. Things to know? Potatoes don't count; they're counted as a starchy food, and dried fruit is generally higher in sugar than fresh, so it counts for more portions.
There are myriad reasons to get your fruit and veg in, apart from their just being generally delicious. So next time you see an alluring head of broccoli at the farmer's market, don't ignore its siren song — it could be good for your health in ways we're still only just learning.