Skin Cancer Prevention: Add These Foods to Your Diet

If you’ve had skin cancer, or if you’re at high risk for developing it, you may be focused on following good sun habits, reducing your exposure to harmful UV rays from sunlight, and wearing sunscreen and protective clothing. You may also practice regular self-screenings, looking for the ABCDE’s to spot any possible skin cancers at their earliest, and most treatable, stage. But how does what you eat affect your skin?

More and more research is supporting the idea that your diet can also help prevent skin cancers. The food we eat is the fuel for all our cells, including our skin cells. And researchers have found the foods you eat can help prevent the development of cancers.

Reducing UV damage

The main cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) rays, which we are exposed to from sunlight or from tanning beds. Exposure to UV rays generates free radicals in the body – substances that can cause inflammation and damage to important cellular components including DNA, which can lead to the development of cancer. The best defense against free radicals and the damage they cause is antioxidants – molecules that can stop the free radicals from creating a chain reaction of damage.
Antioxidants cannot be produced in the body and must be obtained through the nutrients we eat. Antioxidants that have been found to have a benefit in skin cancer prevention include:

  • Vitamin E – helps prevent damage from free radicals, absorbs energy from UV light, exhibits anti-inflammatory effects, and improves the skin’s protective barrier
  • Vitamin C – has properties that make it toxic to cancer cells
  • Vitamin D – boosts the immune system and reduces cancer risk
  • Beta-carotene – converts to vitamin A in the body and boosts the immune system’s ability to fight disease
  • Zinc – boosts the immune system’s ability to fight cancer and other diseases
  • Selenium – reduces the risk of many cancers
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – inhibits the growth of skin cancers and reduces inflammation
  • Lycopene – protects the skin against sun damage and is linked to a lower risk of several cancers
  • Polyphenols – has anti-inflammatory and tumor-inhibiting properties and can help repair DNA that has been damaged by UV rays

While these nutrients are available as supplements, nutritionists recommend that getting these antioxidants through foods is more effective, as the interaction between the various nutrients in foods seems to be key to their potency. In addition to their protective effect in skin cancer, antioxidants have also been found to aid in the prevention of other cancers and have a beneficial effect on conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Where to find antioxidants

A healthy diet includes a variety of foods with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and many of the colorful fruits and vegetables contain powerful antioxidants. Here are some examples of antioxidant-rich foods you can add to your diet:

  • Orange-colored vegetables and fruits, like carrots, squash, yams, cantaloupe, apricots, and mangoes contain beta-carotene
  • Tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruit, and blood oranges contain lycopene
  • Fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and albacore tuna, contain omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D
  • Walnuts and flaxseed are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids
  • Fortified milk and orange juice contain vitamin D
  • Freshly brewed green or black tea contains polyphenols
  • Brazil nuts (just 1-2 are needed), chicken, and grass-fed beef contain selenium
  • Oranges, lemons, limes, strawberries, raspberries, broccoli, bell peppers, and leafy greens are great sources of vitamin C
  • Almonds, sunflower seeds, spinach, soybeans, and wheat germ contain vitamin E
  • Beef, lamb, shellfish, and legumes (like hummus, chickpeas, lentils, and black beans) are good sources of zinc

One diet that has been studied for its protective effects against skin cancer is the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in plants that contain many antioxidants. The Mediterranean diet recommends many cruciferous and green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, citrus fruits, fish, fresh herbs, and olive oil. One study that followed 600 people in Italy found that those following the Mediterranean diet cut their risk of melanoma in half compared to those not on the diet.

Whether you choose to follow a diet like the Mediterranean diet or not, you can add foods to your diet that are high in antioxidants. Nutritionists recommend eating a variety – both in the colors and types of foods you eat – to get the most benefit and widest array of antioxidants.

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