BY NOW you’ve probably got parents who are senior citizens. No matter how healthy your lifestyle, even long-time vegetarians may be more than a nervous the possibility of inheriting a parent’s heart disease or breast cancer. Although antioxidants are important throughout life, now is when many people begin to think about aging and get serious about loading up on vitamins C and E and beta carotene. These antioxidants, found in fruits and vegetables, help neutralize the damaging free radicals that might lead to cancer in the not-too-distant future. The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Aging Research reports that some 120 studies conducted from the mid-1970s to the present showed a significant reduction in cancer risk with high consumption of fruits, vegetables and antioxidant supplements. Consequently, the National Cancer Institute recommends that everyone eat at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables; seven to nine servings are even more protective.
These superhero antioxidant vitamins seem to fight more than just cancer. The Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term study of approximately 87,000 female nurses, found a 22 percent lower risk of heart disease in those who consumed the most fruits and vegetables that were high in beta carotene; it also found a 36 percent lower risk of heart disease in those who took 100 IUs of vitamin E in supplement form per day (New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 328, 1444-49). Another study of 39,000 men showed similar results (New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 328, 1450 56). “The link between reduced risk of heart disease and beta carotene is probably not a direct result of beta carotene intake, but rather a high intake of fruits and vegetables and all their phytochemicals and phytonutrients,” points out Stephen Inkeles, M.D., M.P.H., director of clinical nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center, in Santa Monica, Calif. Sweet potatoes, carrots and cantaloupe are beta carotene powerhouses; other good sources include broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, squash and apricots. Aside from citrus fruits, vitamin C is found in strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, spinach and many other fruits and vegetables. Vitamin E is a popular supplement, but it can be found in a number of foods, particularly vegetable oils, wheat germ, almonds, walnuts and whole wheat flour. Fruits, vegetables, legumes and other plants are also rich in phytochemicals, naturally occurring plant chemicals whose properties have only recently attracted scientific interest. But the early findings are so promising that the National Cancer Institute has funded a major program to research their role in fighting cancer. For example, studies have found that the indoles found in broccoli, brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables slowed the growth of certain cancers and that the polyphenols found in green tea may be effective antioxidants.