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  • Writer's pictureTalia

Skin Cancer: The Protective Effects of A Plant-Based Diet

I live for the summer. I love the feeling of the sand between my toes, the refreshing ocean waters and the warmth of the sun on my skin. To me, summertime is all about lying on a beach with a great book, wearing cute, strappy sundresses, and enjoying outdoor picnics! I want nothing more than to be jovial and carefree during my favorite season, but two words come to mind whenever I think of basking in the sun: skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States.  More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than breast, prostate, and colon cancer combined. Shockingly, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime. This is serious business. Applying sunscreen regularly, avoid tanning beds, and limit your hours in direct sunlight is definitely not all that we can do to protect ourselves from the sun’s damaging rays. The power of our diet cannot be underestimated. Thankfully, many of the foods that help us prevent other diseases have skin cancer–fighting properties too. Given our high odds of developing skin cancer, it’s good news that fruits and vegetables contain powerful antioxidants that help protect our skin. In fact, nutrient-rich, plant-based foods happen to be a shining sparkle of glorious {healthy} light at the end of this grim tunnel.

I am going to get a bit scientific here, so bear with me: Cancer can flourish in the body only when cells that undergo free-radical damage and the subsequent DNA damage (which happens when we spend too much time in the sun!) can’t be repaired by the cell’s DNA monitoring and repair tools. Natural, plant-based foods are rich in phytochemicals and other amazing, skin-protecting compounds, substances that are needed for these repair mechanisms to function optimally. If your diet is low in vegetables and fruits, your body will not obtain enough nutrients for its cells to defend it from oxidative damaged caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Studies have pointed to green vegetables especially as foods that fight skin cancer {and most cancers, for that matter}, because they have the most phytochemicals per calorie.

The cancer-fighting benefits of consuming a high-nutrient, plant-based diet were supported in a 10-year Australian study. Researchers analyzed the diet, skin color, and sunlight exposure of 1,360 adults, ages 25 to 75. Two main eating patterns were identified: a meat and fat pattern and a vegetable and fruit pattern. Results showed that the meat and fat pattern diet was positively associated with development of skin cancer and even more strongly associated in participants with a skin cancer history. Increased consumption of the vegetable and fruit dietary pattern reduced skin cancer occurrence by 54 percent, with the protective effect mostly attributed to the consumption of green leafy vegetables. In conclusion, the researchers deemed that a dietary pattern characterized by high meat and fat intakes increases skin cancer odds, while a dietary pattern characterized by higher consumption of green vegetables decreases them. No surprise there.

A Decadent Defender

It turns out that dark chocolate, with its abundant supply of antioxidants and flavonoids, can help us ward off skin damage from the sun’s rays just as fruits and veggies do. A study con- ducted by German researchers at Heinrich Heine University found that women who drank a dark chocolate hot cocoa vs. a “chocolate” placebo beverage devoid of flavonoids had smoother and moister skin than those drinking the placebo beverage. Upon exposure to UV light, the skin of the women drinking the dark chocolate hot cocoa did not show as much of the redness that indicates skin damage. The women who drank the high-flavonoid cocoa had 15 percent less skin reddening from UV light after 6 weeks of hot chocolate drinking and 25 percent less after 12 weeks on the trial. The women drank the cocoa once every day along with breakfast.

The protective effects that flavonoid-rich foods, like dark chocolate, have on our skin can also be attributed to their ability to get more blood flowing to our skin cells. Our skin, just like the other organs in our bodies, requires steady blood flow to achieve peak health. In the German study, the subjects drinking real cocoa had skin that was 16 percent denser, 11 percent thicker, 13 percent moister, 30 percent less rough, and 42 percent less scaly than it was at the start of the experiment. Sounds good to me!

Just make sure that the dark chocolate you consume isn’t sugary (like many popular chocolate beverages) or loaded with saturated fat (like most chocolate candies). Most of the chocolate in candies is not dark chocolate and is so overly processed that it is devoid of the antioxidants that were once present in the chocolate. My suggestion is to skip the candy aisle and check out the rich dark chocolate sold in health food stores. I add organic, fair- trade cocoa powder to my homemade dessert recipes, like my favorite chocolate-carrot bread, or buy 88 percent extra-dark chocolate from my local health food store. Eat your high-percentage dark chocolate from fair trade sources and you shall reap the rewards of beautiful, healthy skin.

Some cocoa is shipped to the United States from West Africa, where child slavery is commonly practiced. Children are abducted from their families or sold for a pittance to cocoa farm owners and work 80- to 100-hour weeks without pay, much food, any education, or contact with their families. Many of them are physically abused. You can easily avoid buying chocolate produced via these inhumane practices by purchasing only chocolate that has a fair trade certification label on it. For more information, check out!

Scientific references and further reading:

1) H. W. Rogers, M. A. Weinstock, A. R. Harris, et al., “Incidence Estimate of Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer in the United States, 2006,” Archives of Dermatology 146, no. 3 (2010): 283–87. 2) J. K. Robinson, “Sun Exposure, Sun Protection, and Vitamin D,” JAMA 294 (2005): 1541–43. 3) M. B. Engler, M. M. Engler, C. Y. Chen, et al., “Flavonoid-Rich Dark Chocolate Improves Endothelial Function and Increases Plasma Epicatechin Concentrations in Healthy Adults,” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 23, no. 3 (2004): 197–204. 4) D. Taubert, R. Roesen, C. Lehmann, et al., “Effects of Low Habitual Cocoa Intake on Blood Pressure and Bioactive Nitric Oxide: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” JAMA 298, no. 1 (2007): 49–60. 5)

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