There has been an increased interest in the effect of nutrition on the prevention and progression of cancer. Cancer is a devastating condition for both the individual and loves ones affected. Recent research has highlighted the potential for nutrients and dietary patterns to reduce the risk of cancer and cancer reoccurrence.
It has been estimated that 30-50% of all kinds of cancer can be prevented through diet and a healthy lifestyle. This is not to say that if you eat a healthy diet you will never get cancer, no one is saying that. Unfortunately, sometimes people live very healthy lifestyles and will still get a diagnosis at some point in their lives. Nor is anyone saying that diet is a cause of a specific individual’s cancer.
Many factors come into play when it comes to the formation of cancer and, not everyone has the access to resources for a healthy lifestyle either. However, the way I see it is that if you can, a healthy diet and lifestyle also aid prevention of other diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Therefore, by making manageable lifestyle changes that work for you, you may enable prevention against other conditions such as cancer too.
It is known that the expression of genes is influenced by the environment. Diets high in fruits and vegetables, maintaining an active lifestyle and avoidance of smoking and alcohol have been found to considerably reduce cancer risk. A low fibre intake, an increase in red meat consumption and a low intake of omega 3 fatty acids, from foods such as oily fish, nuts and seeds, is thought to contribute to the formation of cancer.
Fibre enables the formation of fatty acids in the large intestine such as butyrate, which can protect against cancers in the colon. Fibre can be increased by adding wholegrains, legumes, pulses, nuts, seeds and fruits and vegetables to the diet. Another food which has been researched is lycopene. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene. Lycopene has been found to promote positive changes in carcinogenic factors that are relevant to colon cancer.
The Mediterranean diet shown to reduce oxidative stress which can increase risk of cancer. It has been shown to inhibit the cell cycle and stop the growth of cancer cells. Lycopene has also been shown to increase the number of IGF-1 binding proteins, lowering the IGF-1 hormone that has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
Lignans have been researched for their possible protection against prostate and breast cancer. Lignans are found in wholegrains and vegetables. The highest amounts in flaxseeds and have been found protective against prostate and breast cancer. Resveratrol is a phenolic compound found in external skin of berries, red grapes and nuts. These compounds can help protective against cell oxidation which can place cells at an increased risk of cancer generating mutations.
Furthermore, other nutrients include soy. There is a lower incidence of prostate cancer where soy consumption is high. Isoflavones are the most important compound of soy. Food sources rich in isoflavones are soy beans, tofu, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils and peanuts.
The Mediterranean diet has been shown beneficial for prevention of many conditions. The diet is high in mono-unsaturated fats, fruit and vegetables, complex carbohydrates and a lower consumption of red meat. There is a higher risk for Colo-rectal cancer in western society where people eat high amounts of processed and red meat. It is recommended we have no more than 500g red meat per week. Processed meat is defined as ‘causative’ of colorectal cancer by the world health organization, therefore no amount of processed meat is recommended for cancer prevention.
There are so many factors that come into play when trying to maintain a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and just gaining the knowledge is only one small part. However, if you have the resources to make small changes to your diet with swaps for plant-based produce high in fibre, bright fruit and vegetables, seeds & nuts, this will positively affect your health and possibly your gene interaction with the environment.
The foods highlighted are examples of food which have shown positive effects, however food works within complex systems and interacts within the body in different processes. No one food should be looked at as a ‘superfood’ or ‘cure’ especially when it comes to conditions such as cancer. Many of the studies published are also on animal models, humans are a little different to mice an therefore more research regarding this area is needed.
Aiming for a balanced diet including where possible brightly coloured fruits and vegetables is the best way to go.