Preventing Cancer through Diet and Lifestyle

December 10, 2018

Is it true that certain foods can cause cancer? Thanks to the processed food industry, a lot of foods produced using machines contain harmful toxins. Check out this blog to know what kind of food to avoid & what kind of food to eat.

"Cancer" is one of the most dreaded words when it comes to healthcare. But the good news is, that the majority of causes of cancer are avoidable. Small components of lifestyle play a major role in preventing cancer:

Does weight have anything to do with cancer?

Yes, maintaining a healthy weight can lower the risk of breast, colon, kidney, prostate & lung cancer. This can be achieved by following a balanced diet & exercising regularly. Even though its not as easy as it sounds, limiting high-calorie foods, decreasing food portions and sticking to an exercising schedule can give great results.

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What kind of food to avoid?

Calorie dense, Nutrient deficient foods

Foods that are calorie dense & lack nutrients should be avoided. This includes foods with added sugars, refined carbohydrates & solid fats. Candies, sweets, potato chips, doughnuts, french fries, cakes, puddings, brownies, cookies, ice-creams, mayonnaise etc. all fall in this category. These kinds of foods lead to weight gain & increase the risk of cancer.

Saturated Fat, Processed Meat & Red Meat:

Increased consumption of saturated fat, processed meat, and red meat, have shown to raise the risk for cancer, possibly through contact with carcinogenic substances during cooking and processing methods

Saturated Fats: Unhealthy fats like saturated and trans-fat, increase the risk for a variety of cancers such as colon, rectum, and prostate cancer. Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products like cheese, butter, red meat, etc. The fat content in meat may contribute to the production of secondary compounds in the body that act as carcinogens.

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are quite healthy. Essential omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood (mackerel, salmon, sardines) and plant-based foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, olive oil, etc are certainly a healthy choice.

Processed Meat and Red Meat:

High intakes of processed meats like sausages & hot dogs and red meats like beef & pork are linked to stomach and colorectal cancers. A chemical found in red meat, haem produces N-nitroso chemicals after breaking down in the gut. These can damage the cells that line the bowel and lead to bowel cancer. In addition, the nitrite and nitrate preservatives which are used to preserve processed meat also produce N-nitroso chemicals. These same chemicals are also produced when processed meat is digested.

Salt-cured, salt-pickled & smoked foods:

Eating salt-cured, pickled, and smoked-broiled foods increases the risk for cancer.

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Salt-Cured Foods: Food preserved by salting and pickling can increase the risk of stomach, nose and throat cancers. High salt intake is a significant risk factor for gastric cancer. This association was found to be strong in the presence of Helicobacter (H.) pylori infection with atrophic gastritis.

Higher salt intake strips the lining of the stomach and may make infection with H. pylori more likely or may worsen the infection.

Smoked Foods: People who eat a lot of smoked meat may be more likely to develop prostate, colon, rectal and pancreatic cancer. A substance called benzopyrene is formed when fat from meat drips on to hot coals. The rising smoke then deposits the carcinogenic substance on the meat. One can imagine how harmful these foods can be!

High-temperature Fried or Broiled Food: This process converts some of the meat proteins into products that damage the genetic material of the human body cells.

What kind of food should be consumed?

Foods that act as anti-cancer substances when consumed in moderate amounts should be preferred. This broadly covers:

Whole Grains: The Germ present in the grains has high levels of zinc, carotenoids and oils which facilitate health & development. Cancers of the gastrointestinal tract(rectal & colon) can be kept at bay with wheat, oats, rice, millets, sorghum contain vitamins, minerals, and dietary fibre.

Fruits and vegetables: The phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre present in fruits & vegetables have shown potent effects against carcinogenesis, i.e. the initiation of cancer formation.

How do Phytochemicals help with cancer

Phytochemicals (or phytonutrients) are biologically active compounds found in plants, they have antioxidant-like properties. Dark green and orange vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, flavonoids, and sulfides are a few types of phytochemicals.

Cruciferous vegetables: Cabbage, broccoli & cauliflower belong to the cabbage family and are well-known for their anti-cancer properties. A variety of compounds present in these vegetables inhibit cancer growth & promote detoxification; thus reducing the accumulation of cancer-causing toxins in the body.

Sulfides: Garlic, onions, leeks, chives, scallions, and shallots, are rich in flavanols and organosulfur compounds, which have tumour-inhibitory properties. These restrict the activation of cancer-causing substances, enhance DNA repair, reduce cell proliferation, or induce cell death.

Flavonoids: Green Tea contains catechins like EGCG (epigallactone catechin gallate), which inhibits cancer growth. Soy products (except soy sauce) also contain important compounds called isoflavones. These molecules can act as hormone buffers and reduce the risks of hormone-sensitive cancers.

Turmeric: It contains an active ingredient that is is an extracted compound called curcumin. It prevents several forms of cancer because of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It stops the development of cancer by interfering with the cellular signalling aspects of this chronic disease.

Oregano: Italian spice oregano is extremely antimicrobial, high in antioxidants. A beneficial phytochemical present in oregano, quercetin is a powerful parasite fighter. It slows cancer growth and promotes apoptosis.

Rosemary: Its extracts and the active compounds carnosic acid and rosmarinic acid suppress the growth of tumours and decrease the number of tumours produced.

Capsaicin is a bioactive phytochemical abundant in red and chilli peppers. Capsaicin act as a carcinogen or as a cancer preventive agent. Capsaicin has been shown to alter the expression of several genes involved in cancer cell survival, growth arrest, angiogenesis and metastasis.

Cumin: The crude oil and thymoquinone (TQ) extracted from cumin seeds are effective against many diseases like cancer, cardiovascular complications, diabetes, asthma, kidney disease etc.

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TQ plays an antioxidant role by improving body's defence system and inducing apoptosis. It protects against cancer in the blood system, lung, kidney, liver, prostate, breast, cervix and skin.

How do antioxidants help with cancer

Tissue damage is linked to increased cancer risk. Antioxidants are compounds present in fruits and vegetables which help protect tissues from being damaged. Different types of antioxidants include vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E, vitamin A(the carotenoids), and beta-carotene.

Beta Carotene:Free radicals are substances that destroy cell membranes and DNA. Antioxidants protect the cells from the free radicals. Beta-carotene is a pigment found in plants that give them their colour. This act as an antioxidant with strong cancer-fighting properties.

Carotenoids are beneficial in preventing skin, breast, and prostate cancer. Some carotenoids get converted into vitamin A, which is instrumental in providing healthy vision and cell growth.

The richest sources of beta-carotene are yellow, orange, and green leafy fruits and vegetables like carrots, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, pumpkins, etc. It is interesting to note that, more intense the natural colour of the fruit or vegetable, the more beta-carotene it has.

Vitamin E: Vitamin E works as an antioxidant & works quickly and reacts with destructive substances called free radicals, rendering them harmless before they get a chance to harm DNA, therefore preventing mutations and tumour growth.

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This a fat-soluble vitamin and a natural cancer fighter is found in the germ of grains (like wheat), nuts (like almonds, peanuts & hazelnuts), and in beans (like navy beans & soybeans).

Vitamin C: This is another antioxidant that helps destroy cancer-causing free radicals in the body. Indian gooseberry, Berries, Citrus fruits, Kiwi, etc. are rich sources of vitamin C. Vitamin C is water-soluble and protects against oxidation in the watery areas of the human body, such as blood and inside cells.

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It also helps to recycle vitamin E & enables it to actively fight free radicals. The protective effect of vitamin C can be seen in cancers of the oesophagus, larynx, mouth, pancreas, stomach, colon, and breast.

Is there a connection between alcohol consumption & cancer?

Yes, heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages increases the risk of mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, pancreas, bladder, colorectal, and breast cancers! Thus they should be consumed in moderation or not consumed at all.

Alcohol Abuse and the Cancer Connection: This link between cancer and alcohol is complex because frequent alcohol consumption may result in numerous health problems. Direct contact of alcohol on the mouth, pharynx and oesophagus can have a carcinogenic effect.

Heavy drinking can result in liver cirrhosis, which may lead to liver cancer. Alcoholics commonly have nutritional deficiencies because alcohol contains only empty calories. In such cases, food intake is compromised which results in low fruit, vegetable, and whole grain intake.

It gets worse when heavy drinkers smoke cigarettes because the risk of cancer gets compounded. Alcohol is also high in calories, so another drawback is the weight gain associated with alcohol, which further increases the risk of cancer.

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How to Moderate Alcohol Consumption: Gradually reduce to no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women. Replace it with other non-alcoholic beverages like soft drinks, fruit juice etc. Always provide non-alcoholic beverages and nutrient-dense foods at social gatherings.

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Being proactive goes a long way

The American Cancer Society has provided this easy reminder to keep a check on cancer symptoms:

C: Change in bowel or bladder habits

A: A sore that does not heal

U: Unusual bleeding or discharge

T: Thickening or lump in the breast or elsewhere

I: Indigestion or difficulty in swallowing

O: Obvious change in a wart or mole

N: A Nagging cough or hoarseness

Always be vigilant of any symptoms or changes you feel in your body.

Go for regular check-ups & screenings, especially if you have a history of cancer in your family.

Article by Ms. ChandanaKakamanu, (M.Sc. - Dietetics /Nutrition)
Consultant Dietitian, CallHealth

Have a Question? Consult Ms. Chandana Kakamanu online.

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