South Los Angeles Families Fight Colon Cancer with Garden-Fresh Food Choices

This picture includes students and parents that participated in the 2-week dietary experiment. (Courtesy Photo)
This picture includes students and parents that participated in the 2-week dietary experiment.

By Viveca Finley, BSN & William McCarthy, Ph.D.

Colon cancer risk is 13 times more common in African Americans than in rural South Africans. A recent two-week dietary experiment showed that a cellular risk factor for colon cancer doubled in South African study participants when they switched from their usual high-fiber, resistant starch maize-based porridge (Putu) to a typical U.S. French fries, catsup and hamburger fast food meal diet.

Conversely, African Americans who replaced their French fries, catsup and hamburgers for two weeks with the South African high-fiber Putu porridge saw their cellular risk of colon cancer cut in half. The authors of the diet study concluded that African Americans could probably reduce their exceptionally high colon cancer risk by replacing their fast food meals with fiber-rich foods. Fiber-rich foods include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.

Ms. Viveca Finley, a member of the health ministry at the Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church in South Los Angeles, has been teaching healthy eating for decades. She and other members of the health ministry jumped at the chance to make use of Viveca’s nutrition expertise to reduce community members’ risk of colon cancer. With academic support from UCLA public health researcher William McCarthy, Viveca created and tested ten weeks’ worth of healthy recipes that made use of produce freshly harvested from the Church’s community garden.

These recipes were used to encourage ten participating families to consume more fiber-rich foods, low in saturated fat but foods that were more culturally familiar to community members than the South African Putu porridge. All cooking demonstrations took place in the fully equipped Church kitchen, where participants – parents and children included- were given hands-on training in how to cook the recipes. They were also able to taste the results of their cooking efforts, which they thoroughly enjoyed. Leftover food was not a problem with these sessions.

The resulting 16-page “Health is Wealth Recipes” booklet included a prefatory list of the contents of the “Healthy Pantry,” with recommended spices, canned goods, whole grains and of course, fresh fruits and vegetables (which usually keep better in the refrigerator than in the pantry). The remaining pages described the recipes that Ms. Viveca used during her 10 health promotion sessions, ranging from “Chard and kale tacos” to “Vegetable gumbo soup” to “Zucchini patties.”

The adult study participants completed food frequency questionnaires at baseline and six months later, to gauge how much their diets had changed as a result of participating in the Lincoln Memorial Church health promotion program. Although this program was not touted as a weight loss program, the adult participants reduced their total calorie intake from 2,043 Calories at baseline to 1,401 Calories at follow-up. This reduction in daily calorie intake resulted in the average participant experiencing a 2.4-pound weight loss over six months.

Not only did the participants increase the proportion of their average plate devoted to fresh fruits and vegetables (which are good sources of dietary fiber), they also reduced their weekly sugary beverage consumption by 21 percent and reduced their weekly pizza consumption by 40 percent. These changes made their daily food choices nutritionally closer to the healthy features of the South African diet.

One of the practical tips that participants learned was that their bowel movements could be good indicators of whether they were eating enough fiber-rich foods. Larger, more frequent bowel movements are indicators of intestinal good health if the bowel movements have the goldilocks consistency of soft sausage, not too firm and not too liquidy. Most Americans consume only half the fiber-rich foods that they should. When they successfully increase their intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds to recommended levels, they typically notice the difference in what they deposit in their toilet bowl. These and other practical tips led the study participants to be unanimous in praising the Lincoln Memorial Church health promotion program and in saying that they “definitely” would recommend this program to family members and friends.

For more information or to get involved contact, Viveca Finley, BSN [vivsvittles@gmail.com], William McCarthy, Ph.D. [wmccarth@ucla.edu] or Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church @ 323-293-8535.

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Sentinel.

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