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A healthy diet helps you avoid skin cancer

a yellow polka-dot bikini top hanging on the line to dry after washing



Cancer is caused by a multitude of factors, but one that we're sure of is cellular damage through oxidation. High levels of sun exposure causes this oxidative damage to skin cells, which can lead to skin cancer. On the other hand, we also know that anti-oxidants in the diet, like vitamins C and E, can help reduce this damage.

But people don't just eat vitamins - they eat food. Scientists in Australia noted that while there are studies of fat intake or green leafy vegetables and their individual effect on your risk of skin cancer, there isn't much research on overall dietary patterns.

To assess this interaction between dietary pattern and risk of skin cancer, 1,360 residents of a community in Queensland, Australia were recruited to participate in a long-term study begun in 1992 (Am J Clin Nutr 2007;85:1401-8). At the beginning of the study, the subjects filled out a questionnaire detailing how often they had eaten any of almost 130 different foods, including added sugar, fat and fried foods, and fruits and vegetables, over the previous six months. They also answered questions about their skin color (fair, medium, or olive), whether they initially burned or tanned when they went in the sun, whether they had any history of diagnosed skin cancer, and other risk factors for skin cancer.

The participants were then followed through the end of 2002 and were screened for skin cancers in 1992, 1994, 1996 and 2000.

Meanwhile, the Australian scientists analyzed the food questionnaires from the subjects and identified two distinct dietary patterns: one they called the "meat and fat" pattern, and another they called the "vegetable and fruit" pattern. The meat and fat dietary pattern consisted of a high intake of red and processed meats, high fat, processed grains, snack foods, sugared drinks and high-fat dairy products. The vegetable and fruit dietary pattern will be familiar to those who have been reading these News Bites: high amounts of vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish, and low-fat dairy products. (Hmm... Mediterranean Diet, anyone?)

After adjusting for skin color and other variables, they found that those who most often followed the meat and fat dietary pattern had almost double the risk of squamous cell carcinoma (the less common form of skin cancer) as compared to those who most often followed the vegetable and fruit pattern.

What this means for you

More evidence that a healthy diet can help you avoid many types of cancers. I also tell my patients that when they go outside they should always wear sunscreen of at least 30 SPF (I wear 60 SPF).

First posted: May 9, 2007