Some of the best protection against melanoma may come straight from Mother Nature. Discover how the right foods can help keep you healthy.

How a Healthy Diet Can Protect You from Skin Cancer

You got the pale-is-the-new-tan memo years ago and have the sun smarts to prove it. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and women age 39 and under have a higher probability of developing its most serious form, melanoma, than they do any other invasive cancer except breastcancer. Yep; knew that. Slather on waterproof sunscreen before you exercise, sport floppy broad-brimmed hats at the beach, stay out of midday rays, and steer clear of tanning beds. Check; do all that. Still, despite your savvy and diligence, there's a new stealth skin saver you may be missing: your diet.

"The research is preliminary but promising," says Karen Collins, RD, clinical dietitian and nutritionadviser for the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C. "In addition to limiting your sun exposure, eating certain foods may help reduce your risk."

Much of the recent research focuses on the sun-soaked Mediterranean. Despite their typically outdoor lifestyles, dwellers in this region are less likely to get melanomas than Americans, and some scientists believe that in addition to their olive skin tone, the disparity may be due to the two cultures' very different eating habits. The region's largely plant-based diet, brimming with vegetables and fruits as well as olive oil, fish, and fresh herbs, was found to cut melanoma risk by 50 percent in an Italian study published in theInternational Journal of Epidemiology.

Researchers point to the diet's antioxidants, substances thought to help protect against cellular damage caused by the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is still the biggest risk factor for skin cancer, according to dermatologists. Here's how the process works: UV light damages skin cells, which then release oxygen molecules called free radicals. If free radicals damage your DNA, they can alter it, and skin cells may turn cancerous and replicate. The good news is that having a large amount of antioxidants in your skin and body may neutralize the free radicals and thus prevent or slow skin cancer growth. In fact, research has shown that people who drank a daily antioxidant-rich beverage had 50 percent fewer free radicals in their blood after two weeks than those who didn't drink the blend -- and both groups were exposed to three to six steady hours of sun a day!

There's also a new, growing body of research looking into the "antiangiogenic" properties of foods. Sun damage to the skin causes the growth of new blood vessels, in a process called angiogenesis, that cancer cells hijack to feed themselves. "Antiangiogenesis substances in food can starve cancer cells, preventing them from growing and becoming dangerous," says William Li, MD, president and medical director of the Angio­genesis Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Certain foods -- including omega-3 fatty acid-rich fish, which is plentiful in the Mediterranean diet -- contain these antiangiogenic substances. Some antioxidant-rich foods show antiangiogenic activity, too, Dr. Li adds.

Chances are that you're already getting at least some cancer-fighting fare if you eat ahealthy diet. Making a few small changes may help boost your protection further. "Food is the chemotherapy we all take three times a day," Dr. Li says. So in addition to keeping the sunblock at the ready this summer, stock your fridge and pantry with a new kind of SPF: skin-protective foods. Borrow these smart strategies from the Mediterranean style of eating to add a cancer-protective dose of antioxidants and antiangiogenic agents to your diet. Here are five easy ways to get SPF on your plate and in your cup.