By Gabrielle Lambie – Nutritionist
Almost every month of the year is dedicated to the awareness of some form of cancer. Last month was Breast Cancer Awareness Month and this month is ‘Movember’, dedicated to raising awareness of the types of cancers that affect men. Cancer is without a doubt a disease that unfortunately touches most of our lives in some way or the other. With over 200 types of cancers affecting millions of humans worldwide, it is no surprise that this disease warrants year-round attention.
The saying goes – ‘prevention is better than cure’. Well, when it comes to cancer, in the absence of a cure, prevention is that much more important. Without prevention, all that is left to focus on is the treatment of cancer and acceptance of its death sentence or reduced quality of life patients have while being treated for this horrible disease. To look at cancer prevention, we must first start with the factors that increase your risk of developing cancer. These include your genetics, the environment, lifestyle choices, and of course, your diet. Other than genetics, the other factors are in many ways under our control. This article is about taking control of one of those factors- your diet.
What you drink and what you eat, and don’t eat, all have a tremendous effect on whether or not you get some form of cancer. Some experts say that approximately 50% of all cancers in developed countries are attributable to the food we eat, and don’t eat. That figure more than highlights the powerful role diet can play in cancer prevention.
The good thing about eating to prevent cancer is that a diet that could reduce cancer risk really doesn’t look that different from the healthy foods you should be eating everyday anyways. Such a diet will also help you lower your risk of other diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. If that’s not enough reason to start using your diet to prevent cancer, there is yet another bonus- you will also find it easier to maintain a healthy weight. Having a healthy weight in itself is a preventative measure against cancer as obesity has been found to increase the risk of several cancers including endometrial cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and colon cancer.
So what does a cancer prevention diet actually look like? For starters, don’t think of it as a ‘diet’ in the restrictive sense of the word. Instead it is steps you take every day through the foods you choose to eat and those you limit that make you a healthier person with the long-term benefit of a reduced risk of cancer. Here is a list of strategies for preventing cancer through diet.
Increase your intake of:
Fruits and Vegetables
It should be apparent by now that fruits and vegetables are the foundation of any healthy diet and it is no different for one focused on cancer prevention. Aim for a variety of colours as these are indicators of the presence of various antioxidants and phytochemicals. Antioxidants and phytochemicals are chemical compounds found in plants that protect cells from harmful compounds in food and the environment, as well as prevent cell damage and mutations. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts), tomatoes, berries and dark leafy green vegetables are especially important in cancer prevention.
You want to aim to get at least 25g of dietary fibre per day – some experts estimate that for every 10g per day of dietary fibre in your diet, your risk of developing colon cancer is reduced by 10%. Dietary fibre is found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and peas and beans. Dietary fibre also helps with weight loss and maintenance, overall digestive health and cardiovascular health.
Essential fatty- acids
Essential fatty acids reduce your risk of cancer by reducing inflammation in the body. Sources include salmon, mackerel, sardines, nuts, beans, and avocadoes.
Green tea contains compounds called catechins that protect against DNA damage, strengthen the immune system and activate enzymes that curb tumors. Experts recommend at least 3 cups a day and it is available decaffeinated for those concerned with caffeine intake.
Reduce your intake of:
Red Meat and Processed Meat
Last month the WHO confirmed what many health experts had suspected for a long time – processed meat in carcinogenic and red meat is possibly carcinogenic. What this means is the intake of these should be greatly limited in your diet. Remember that processed meat includes any meat that has been salted, fermented, cured, smoked, canned, or otherwise processed to enhance flavor and improve preservation. Red meat includes not only beef, but also lamb and mutton, pork, veal, and ‘wild meat’.
Alcohol is believed to increase the risk of cancers of the oesophagus, liver, breast and mouth. Men should limit their intake to no more than 2 drinks per day and women should limit it to no more than 1 drink per day.
Trans-fats increase the risk of prostate cancer and invasive breast cancer. They also increase your chance of becoming overweight or obese, which in turn increases your risk of several cancers. To help identify products with trans-fats, check the ingredients list and avoid products with partially hydrogenated oils.
These dietary guidelines, along with healthy lifestyle choices like not smoking and engaging in regular physical activity will reduce your risk of developing cancer and make u an all-round healthier person. We continue to hope for a cure but in the meantime, and even after cure is found, prevention should be every person’s focus.