According to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, women who eat more fruits, vegetables and protein before pregnancy may lower the risk of their children developing leukemia. Researchers had 276 mothers from Northern California answer a questionnaire about their diets in the year prior to their pregnancies. Half of those filling out the questionnaire had a child who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the other half had children who were cancer-free.

Researchers found that high consumption of fruits, vegetables and protein-containing foods, proportionally lowered the risk of the women’s children developing leukemia. The study, published in the August 2004 issue of Cancer, Causes and Control, was unusual in that previous studies have focused on specific foods or supplements, not overall diet.

According to the study, certain foods like carrots, string beans and cantaloupe seem to be more effective for lowering childhood leukemia risk. These foods contain carotenoids, which are a source of vitamin A and have been shown to function as antioxidants. The findings are consistent with research suggesting a diet high in fruits and vegetables can help prevent adult cancers.

Protein, including red meat, poultry and beans, can have a protective role, too, the study shows. A peptide (part of a protein) called glutathione in these foods is an antioxidant and plays a role in the synthesis and repair of DNA, as well as detoxification of certain harmful compounds.

“Leukemia is a very complex disease with multiple risk factors,” said Patricia Buffler, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and head of the Northern California Childhood Leukemia Study, which includes this research. “What these findings show is that the nutritional environment in utero could be one of these factors.”