Can diet really help reduce skin cancer risk? The answer, according to a large study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association of Dermatology, is yes.
Increased vitamin A from foods, especially, was linked to lower rates of a malignant skin cancer in the more than 100,000 people studied.
Rates of skin cancer have tripled in the past three decades, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, which estimates that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer within their lifetime. Prevention and early treatment is crucial due to how quickly and easily this cancer can spread throughout the body.
Why vitamin A is so important
Vitamin A is linked to other various health benefits which include aiding in immune, bone, vision growth and reproductive health as well as protection from UV rays.
In addition to helping with skin protection, vitamin A is critical to eye health. It aids in prevention of night blindness and reduces the risk for macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. The fat-soluble vitamin can act as a powerful antioxidant that protects the body from free radicals, a risk factor for premature aging and chronic disease.
This new study found that vitamin A intake was associated with a reduced risk of developing cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma, or SCC, a type of malignant skin cancer, in a review of the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study that collected data on over 120,000, mostly white, men and women. SCC is more common in fair-skinned individuals and often affects people in areas where sun exposure is common.
Several previous studies have shown that vitamin A can help in the prevention of other cancers, as well. Researchers believe the benefit may come from the how vitamin A works on a cellular level.
Foods that are vitamin A powerhouses
Just a few extra servings of these foods can help.
Though Vitamin A deficiency is rare in the United States, people who struggle with getting enough fruits and vegetables in their daily diets may not consume enough to reap the protective benefits seen in the study -- especially the powerful precursor to Vitamin A, beta carotene.
Plant-based foods that include vitamin A are carotenoids -- a form of provitamin A. These carotenoids can be converted into retinol, as well as, other active forms of the vitamin which the body then absorbs. Beta carotene is a common and beneficial source of carotenoids because of its ability to be converted into more active forms of vitamin A.
Beta carotene is found in orange-hued foods such as pumpkin, carrots and sweet potatoes. The deeper the hue, the more carotenoids in that food.
Vitamin A from animal-based sources is sometimes referred to as pre-formed vitamin A and is absorbed as retinol (considered the active form of vitamin A). The body has the ability to make other forms of active vitamin A, as well, which is necessary for metabolism.
This study showed that plant-based vitamin A appeared more effective than sources derived from animals. The good news is only a moderate amount of vitamin A is necessary to reach the skin cancer-protection benefits. Just adding one orange-colored food to the diet every day can help most people reach the status that was found in study participants.
Here's a few easy ways to add more vitamin A:
--Add carrots or peppers to a salad, or canned pumpkin to soups and sauces can significantly increase the vitamin A in the dish.
--Try swapping white potatoes for sweet potatoes, or choosing cantaloupes or mango for a dessert. Leafy greens like spinach and kale also have large amounts of vitamin A.
--Eat these meat and milk-based proteins: liver, eggs, beef, whole milk and cheese.
Genetics also play a role in how well people convert and absorb vitamin A. People with some disorders that interfere with fat absorption, such as Celiac disease, Crohn's disease and pancreas diseases may require a different approach.
Supplements versus food
The majority of vitamin A intake from the study participants was derived from diet, not from supplements, the researchers said.
This is consistent with other studies comparing food vs. supplements. A study from earlier this year showed that nutrients found in food, not supplements, held the most powerful factors to help reduce the risk of death and cancer. Other studies have linked vitamin A supplements with an increased risk of lung cancer, especially in smokers.
In addition to other skincare routines and precautions -- wearing sunscreen daily, avoiding peak afternoon sun and covering up when working outdoors for long periods -- amping up vitamin A through food can help reduce the risk of the dangerous cancer.
This study is another example of how eating a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables can help protect against disease and sustain a healthy lifestyle.