Researchers have found yet another reason for girls to eat their fruits and vegetables.

Fruits and vegetables are an important component of a healthy, well-balanced diet, and, now, Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers have found yet another benefit for young girls.

A recent study, led by Caroline Boeke, a postdoctoral fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health, found that girls who ate the most fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids (a particular type of phytonutrient) were less likely to get benign (non-cancerous) breast diseases, some of which raise the risk for cancer.

Carotenoids, the pigments that give fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors, are believed to have antioxidant properties that protect our bodies from disease by absorbing substances called free radicals that can harm our cells.

“There are a number of studies about carotenoids and breast cancer,” explains Boeke. “These studies have produced mixed results but did suggest a protective effect of the carotenoids.”

Boeke and her research team decided to analyze the intake of fruits and vegetables in girls that had enrolled in a study that began in 1996 – looking at diet in 1996, 1997, and 1998, and then asking girls in 2005, 2007, and 2010 if they had been diagnosed with benign breast disease confirmed by biopsy. 6,600 girls were studied, and, of that group, 122 were diagnosed with the disease. Other risk factors for benign breast disease – including alcohol intake, physical activity, family history, and body mass index – were accounted for in the study.

Boeke found that high intakes of carotenoids were beneficial and says, “The odds of benign breast disease in those who consumed the most carotenoids were about half that of those who consumed the least.” Girls with the highest intake ate roughly two to three servings of carotenoid-rich foods weekly.

Carotenoid-rich foods include:

  • Squash
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Pumpkin
  • Dark, leafy greens
  • Carrots
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Melons
  • Red grapefruit, oranges, and tangerines

“This is an observational study, so we cannot say for sure the carotenoids cause the lower risk,” she says. “We can only say there is an association.”

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