How healthy eating lowers cancer risk

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The saying “you are what you eat” really does have a lot of truth in it.  Our day to day food choices do indeed have a direct influence on our overall health and well-being including whether or not we may develop cancer.  Not only do the foods we eat play a substantial role on the influence and specific type of cancer that may develop they may also provide a protective role in reducing our risk of this deadly disease to begin with.

There are many recommendations and strategies we can use to make an impact on reducing our overall cancer risk.  Here are some ways to incorporate a healthier lifestyle when it comes to dietary choices and body weight:

Body fatness

Excess body weight may affect cancer risk through a number of mechanisms some of which might be specific to certain cancer types.  Carrying excess body weight can affect how the immune system functions along with increasing inflammation, affect levels of certain hormones such as insulin and estrogen, or influence how the body uses certain hormones, such as sex hormone-binding globulin.

To lower your risk of cancer, achieve and maintain a healthy body weight throughout your life.  This can be done through engaging in regular physical activity, limiting consumption of energy-dense foods and avoiding beverages with added sugars.

Plant-based foods

Consuming more plant-based foods benefits us in many ways when it comes to cancer. There are various phytochemicals found in plant-based foods that work together to lower cancer risk.  Some help regulate hormones such as estrogens.  Others slow cancer cell growth or block inflammation.  Many lower the risk of damage caused by oxidants such as tobacco or ozone.   

Eating at least 5 servings each day of fruits and vegetables, choosing whole grains instead of refined grains, limiting intake of red meat and refined starchy foods can be of benefit to reducing cancer risk.

Alcoholic drinks

Each time you drink alcohol, it can act as an irritant, especially in the mouth and throat.  If cells damaged by alcohol try to repair themselves, this may lead to DNA changes that could increase cancer risk.  Alcohol is well-known as being harmful to the liver, leading to inflammation and scarring.  As liver cells try to repair the damage, they can end up with mistakes in their DNA which could lead to cancer.

If you choose to drink alcohol, always do so in moderation.  This means no more than two drinks a day for a man and no more than one drink a day for a woman.

Preserved, processed and prepared foods

Limit the consumption of salt-cured foods and processed meats.  This would include sausage, hot dogs, luncheon meats, pastrami and deli meats.  Chemicals called nitrates and nitrites are used in these foods as a preservative in addition to other chemicals that are made when the meat is cooked at high temperatures. These foods should be eaten very occasionally as there is strong evidence showing how they can increase the risk of colon cancer, and possibly stomach and pancreatic cancers. 

Dietary supplements

The best way to obtain the necessary nutrients each day is to eat food and not take a supplement.  Unless a person has a deficiency of a nutrient, dietary supplements are usually not needed and have not been found to prevent cancer.  Our body absorbs and uses the nutrients from food far better than from a supplement.

A list of specific cancers and the food risk and protective factors associated with each of them

·      Breast (postmenopausal)

Risk factors - Alcoholic drinks, body fatness, abdominal fatness, and adult weight gain

Protective factors – Breastfeeding and healthy body weight

·      Colon and rectum

Risk factors – Red meat, processed meat, alcoholic drinks, body fatness, abdominal fatness

Protective factors – Physical activity, foods containing dietary fiber, garlic, milk, calcium

·      Endometrium

Risk factors – Body fatness, abdominal fatness

Protective factors – Physical activity

·      Esophagus

Risk factors – Alcoholic drinks, body fatness

Protective factors – Nonstarchy vegetables, fruits, foods containing beta-carotene, foods containing vitamin C

·      Lung

Risk factors – Arsenic in drinking water, beta-carotene supplements

Protective factors – Fruits, foods containing carotenoids

·      Mouth, pharynx, and larynx

Risk factors – Alcoholic drinks

Protective factors – Nonstarchy vegetables, fruits, foods containing carotenoids

·      Pancreas

Risk factors – Body fatness, abdominal fatness

Protective factors – foods containing folate

·      Prostate

Risk factors – Diets high in calcium

Protective factors – Foods containing lycopene, foods containing selenium

·      Stomach

Risk factors – Salt, salty and salted foods

Protective factors – Nonstarchy vegetables, allium vegetables, fruits