Staying Safe & Fighting Cancer with Leafy Greens

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Georgia Cancer SpecialistsAccording to the CDC, food-borne illness sends 128,000 Americans to the hospital each year and kills 3,000 annually. A report released just this week based on 10 years of research links food borne illness to leafy greens. The authors did not cite specific foods (i.e. whether or not kale is worse than spinach).

I know what you may be thinking. But diets rich in leafy greens may help reduce my risk of cancer, are full of fiber, and can help me lose weight! Should I stop eating these cancer-preventative power foods?

Not so fast. The CDC is not recommending that consumers avoid leafy greens, especially healthy choices like produce. Instead, educate yourself, be aware, and be smart about your choices.

But before we go any further, there’s one note I need to make.

If you are currently on cancer treatment – such as oral chemo, IV chemo, or radiation – you may be told at some point by your treatment team to not eat raw fruits and vegetables. This recommendation is sometimes given if one type of white blood cell count in your blood (also referred to as “ANC,” or absolute neutrophil count) gets very low.

I can’t say that this recommendation is science or “evidence-based”, but the belief (as I will call it) is that if your ANC is so low that your body can’t fight off infection, then we shouldn’t introduce any raw foods that may be more likely to carry bacteria and make you sick.

This makes sense; however, it’s just not very likely to happen– especially if you are cautious and smart about food preparation.

There are many steps you can take as a consumer and/or cancer fighter to reduce your risk of food-borne illness (no matter what your ANC levels are) and still enjoy leafy greens as part of your meals each week:

  • Wash your hands. I can’t say this enough. This is the easiest step you can take to reduce your risk of many infections. Wash before every meal or snack and before you prepare any food. If you are preparing a variety of foods, wash your hands between each type of food so you can avoid cross-contamination.
  • Wash fresh produce well. Leafy greens have cracks and crevices where dirt and bacteria can hide. Studies show you don’t need to use a special rinse. Just running water and a vegetable brush will work (or just your hands if the greens are fragile). Wash thoroughly.
  • Dry produce after washing. Believe it or not, this extra step can reduce bacteria further. Just be sure to use a clean paper or washable towel!
  • Eat a variety of greens. Each crop may have exposure to different bacteria and production methods. If spinach has an E-Coli breakout, and you have eaten five different greens that week, then you may be less likely to get sick. (I don’t have proof of this, but it just makes sense to me!)
  • Eat less common greens and buy local. Try Bok Choy, Chard, Beet Greens, or another green you haven’t tasted before. Again, I don’t have a reference to back this up, but it would make sense to me that a local, less mass-produced leafy green may be less likely to get contaminated as it doesn’t pass through as many processes and checkpoints.
  • Grow your own greens. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but growing your own gives you more control over the end product. Many times contamination comes from the people picking, packaging and distributing the product.

Want to learn more about food safety? Visit Food

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