Healthy living

Five a day has modest effect on cancer risk

Large European study

Eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day may not cut your risk of developing cancer after all, a new study has found.

Researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York analysed data on diet and lifestyle from 478,000 people in 10 European countries, including the UK. Over an eight year period, 30,000 people developed cancer.

The results, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that eating 400g of fruit and vegetables a day, ie about five portions, gave only modest protection against developing cancer.

In addition, eating an extra 200g of fruit and veg only cut the overall risk of developing cancer by just three per cent.

Heavy drinkers who ate a lot of fruit and vegetables reduced their cancer risk, but only for cancers caused by smoking and drinking alcohol.

In 1990, the World Health Association recommended eating five servings of fruit and vegetables a day to prevent cancer and other diseases, but many studies have not been able to confirm the protective effect of eating fruit and veg, said the researchers.

The study, led by Dr Paolo Boffeta, concluded that any cancer protective effect of fruit and vegetables is likely to be modest, at best. However, other factors may also help protect against cancer.

"In this population, a higher intake of fruits and vegetables was also associated with other lifestyle variables, such as lower intake of alcohol, never-smoking, short duration of tobacco smoking, and higher level of physical activity, which may have contributed to a lower cancer risk," the authors wrote.

In an editorial in the journal, Dr Walter Willet of the Harvard School of Public Health says that although eating a lot of fruit and veg has "little or no effect in reducing the incidence of cancer", it has been shown to affect a person's risk of heart disease and stroke (the biggest killers in the UK).

He also suggests future research should focus on the potential cancer-reducing benefits of specific fruits and vegetables and also study the effects of fruit and vegetable consumption at earlier periods of life.

This article was published on Wed 7 April 2010

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