The month of October brings a change in color to the landscape in the northeastern part of the United States. Pumpkin, squash and gourds become a part of our decorative displays and chosen local food for our meals.
Orange, yellow and red — quintessential fall colors — have been joined by a pink splash, representing the fight to end breast cancer in our country.
Fall harvest brings a close to tending our outer gardens for many of us. Tending our inner garden takes a lifetime of cultivation to remain vigilant in fighting cancer.
I am a 34-year survivor of my initial diagnosis of breast cancer and 19 years from my third. I work daily at keeping my cancer in check. Tending my inner garden has become second-nature to me.
I love the bright autumn colors available to us in our local produce. Phytochemicals, called carotenoids (beta-carotene) are working hard within the plant to provide those colors. Once we eat them, they help our bodies use their own defenses to fight off disease.
As reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Phytochemicals are natural compounds found in plants that are responsible for the color, taste and aroma of foods. As well as these pleasant attributes, they protect us from environmental and ingested carcinogens by arming antioxidant enzymes and enhancing DNA repair pathways. They also have direct effects on the fundamental hallmarks of cancer progression and metastasis. It is not a surprise, then, that the World Cancer Research Fund and other academic bodies report that individuals eating phytochemical-rich foods have a lower risk of cancer or relapse after treatments.” (Scalbert A, Johnson I and Satlmarsh M. Polyphenols: “Antioxidants and beyond.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2005.)
Beta-carotene is a pro-vitamin A carotenoid which needs to be converted to retinol by the body after it is ingested.
Carotene-rich vegetables — especially the darker-fleshed varieties such as pumpkin and acorn — provide exceptional amounts of carotenes. Carotene-rich vegetables have been shown to exert a protective effect against many chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. They may also help in delaying the progression of age-related macular degeneration and improving respiratory symptoms.
The American Heart Association recommends getting enough beta-carotene from a diet high in fruits and vegetables, rather than through supplements. To get six to eight milligrams per day, eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables.
Pumpkin provides 17 milligrams of beta-carotene in one cup. Pumpkin — along with spinach, carrots, sweet potato, kale, collard and turnip greens — has the highest content. Winter squash, dandelion greens, cantaloupe, apricots and mango also provide beta-carotene.
Winter squash are fruits of a generous vine that are indigenous to America. There are hundreds of varieties, all of which generally have a thick, hard skin to temper colder weather, which sweetens their mild, firm flesh.
Winter squash — which include pumpkin, acorn, butternut, hubbard, turban and spaghetti — tend to be slightly starchy and is traditionally baked with spices and seasonings.
To prepare raw winter squash, the meat can be chopped or sliced thinly and soaked in water or marinated with lemon juice to bleach out the excess starch. Using the squash raw in recipes preserves the active enzymes in the plant, which aids in digestion.
Lightly steaming the flesh is a fast and easy way to soften the flesh for soups and savory dishes.
The seeds of the winter squash are incredibly nutritious and abundant in protein and healthy oils. Pumpkin seeds are commonly treated with salt, although any squash seed can be used. Cooking seeds and nuts is not highly recommended, as the precious oils and nutrients are detrimentally altered by heat. Squash and pumpkin seeds can be blended with water and strained to produce a milk that makes an excellent base for soups.
Antioxidants protect your body’s cells from free radicals — unstable molecules created during normal cell functions. Pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides also can create free radicals in your body.
Free radicals can damage a cell’s genetic parts and may trigger the cell to grow out of control. These changes may contribute to the development of cancer and other disease. As a rule, dark-colored fruits and vegetables (including pumpkins, sweet potatoes and carrots) have more antioxidants than other fruits and vegetables.
More than 330,000 new cases of breast cancer will occur in the United States this year alone. It is clear that prevention should be a priority. Nutrition can be used to prevent and heal cancer.
Dr. Mark Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, makes these recommendations for changing the soil in which cancer grows in the body:
- Fiber up. Fiber is critical for the gut, and, therefore, our overall health. Your goal should be 35 grams per day. High fiber foods include vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and whole grains, like brown rice.
- Reduce sugar. Sugar becomes the driver behind high insulin levels. Every time you eat sugar, you raise insulin levels, which make cancer cells grow and promote inflammation.
- Have clean protein and healthy fat at every meal. These two macro-nutrients are both important for balancing the blood sugar effects of carbohydrates. They are also important to help the body rebuild and heal.
- Control stress levels. Try yoga, meditation, deep breathing or another de-stressor that works for you.
- Restore your gut. Leading researchers at Cleveland Clinic discovered gut microflora influences cancer genes and your immune system. Tend your inner garden with gut-supporting foods, like fermented foods, as well as fiber and probiotics.
- Reduce your toxic load. Choose filtered water and organic food and always opt for high-quality animal sources like wild salmon and grass-fed beef. Become more aware of how things like household cleaners and cosmetics can increase your toxic load. Visit ewg.org to see lists for safe foods and products.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise improves insulin sensitivity, helping you balance estrogen and maintain a healthy body weight.
- Get great sleep. Studies show an inverse association between sleep duration and breast cancer risk. Aim for eight hours of quality sleep every night.
Sally Miller is the owner and operator of Eats of Eden, a Charleston-based nutrition education business that offers an alternative choice for healing the body through nutrition. She attended Carnegie Mellon University and in 2009 graduated from Bauman Holistic Nutrition College, specializing in holistic nutrition education. She has recently become certified as a Gluten Free Practitioner. For more information on classes and consultations, visit her website at www.eatsofeden.com.