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Non-Starchy VegetablesVeggies: More Variety for Maximum Cancer Protection

AICR has long promoted increased consumption of plant foods namely vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans as a key factor in cancer prevention.  AICR’s expert report, Food Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective and its updates has solidified this recommendation.

AICR encourages people to eat “a variety of fruits and vegetables” with the probable link between consumption of non-starchy vegetables  and reduced cancer risk.

The first AICR expert report, published in 1997, encouraged people to eat “a variety of fruits and vegetables.” The new report now points to a probable link between consumption of non-starchy vegetables in particular and reduced cancer risk.

While a recommendation to up your veggie intake isn’t necessarily headline grabbing news, the new report encourages the public to broaden its pallet beyond starchy vegetables (think mashed potatoes), which have become the anchor of many American meals. Seeking out non-starchy options in addition to starchy veggies appears to offer increased protection from cancers of the mouth, larynx, pharynx, esophagus and stomach.

What’s the difference?

Non-starchy vegetables include the following categories: leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach; cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and bok choy; and allium vegetables like onions, garlic and leeks. Cucumbers, squash, peppers and tomatoes – botanically classified as fruits – also fall into this category. (For a comprehensive list, see below.)

Starchy vegetables, defined in the report as roots, tubers and plantains (most notably, potatoes, cassava and sweet potatoes), differ from their non-starchy cousins in their nutrient content and calorie count. While non-starchy varieties provide just 5 grams of carbohydrate and 25 calories per serving, starchy vegetables have three times the carbohydrates and roughly 80 calories per serving.

Although starchy vegetables are more concentrated in calories than non-starchy veggies, they remain nutritious staples in a balanced diet. These foods provide many nutritional benefits. Potatoes, for example, supply almost twice the potassium of a banana. Starchy vegetables also provide dietary fiber, which may play a role in colon cancer prevention.

Over-reliance on starchy vegetables, however, can prove problematic. First, a diet devoid of non-starchy options is lacking in many vitamins, nutrients and phytochemicals. And second, starchy varieties, like potatoes, are frequently prepared with added fat, salt and sugar. In fact, although potatoes consistently rank as the favorite vegetable in America, they are rarely consumed in their unprocessed form. A plain baked potato would garner thumbs-up from any dietitian, but tater tots, potato chips and French fries are clearly foods that should be eaten rarely.

How do they affect cancer risk?

According to AICR experts, non-starchy vegetables supply a broader array of micronutrients. Specifically, the panel cites the potent anti-cancer effects of plant foods containing Vitamin C, carotenoids such as beta-carotene and lycopene, folate and a variety of phytochemicals. These compounds are most commonly found in non-starchy vegetables and fruits.

White Potatoes

In addition to the direct effect that non-starchy vegetables play in cancer prevention, the benefit of increasing vegetable intake – starchy and nonstarchy included – is actually two-fold. As a general rule of thumb, vegetables contain fewer calories per bite than other foods. They also tend to have a higher water content and additional fiber – two characteristics that can increase satiety. Foods that meet these criteria, defined as low-energy-dense foods, have been identified as key players in battling weight gain. As AICR has identified maintenance of a healthy weight as a major factor in reducing cancer risk, choosing foods that support this goal –vegetables, for example – is highly recommended.

How much?

According to the report, at least five servings of a variety of non-starchy vegetables and fruits are recommended each day. One half-cup of cut vegetables or one-cup of raw leafy greens each count as one “serving.” Try the following suggestions to help increase your intake of non-starchy veggies:

  • Make a farmer’s omelet using bell peppers, mushrooms, onions and spinach
  • Add spinach, zucchini and yellow squash to homemade lasagna
  • Forget the chips and offer broccoli, cauliflower and carrot sticks when serving salsa and dip to guests
  • Add additional frozen veggies to accompany reduced-sodium frozen dinners
  • Be adventurous. Starting at the beginning of the alphabet, try a new vegetable each week: ‘a’ is for artichoke, ‘b’ could be bok choy, etc.

Non-starchy vegetables

Artichoke hearts, Asparagus, Bean sprouts, Beets, Bok Choy, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, Celery, Collard greens, Cucumber, Eggplant, Green beans, Hearts of palm, Jicama, Kale, Leeks, Mushrooms, Mustard greens, Okra, Onions, Pea pods, Peppers, Radishes, Rutabaga, Sauerkraut, Spinach, Summer squash, Swiss chard, Tomato, Turnips, Water chestnuts, Zucchini


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