Nutrition & Its Relationship to Cancer
What Is Cancer?
Cancer is a serious disease that may be the result of a poor diet, toxin exposure, nutrient deficiencies, or genetics. You can prevent and/or treat cancer by taking in the appropriate types of nutrition. Your first steps should be to eat a nutrient-rich diet of cancer-fighting foods and to avoid fare that may increase your cancer risk.
The link between cancer and diet is as mysterious as the disease itself. Several research papers state that consuming certain foods and nutrients can either prevent or contribute to the growth of certain types of cancer.
There are many factors of your daily life you can't change that increase your cancer risk, including genetics and environment. However, there are a few things you can do to decrease your cancer risk. Research estimates that less than 30% of a person's lifetime risk of getting cancer results from unavoidable factors. You have the power to influence the other 70%, and you can start by changing your diet.
Understand that most research papers only point out associations between diet and cancer and not a cause-and-effect relationship. No study has proved that consuming more or less of a particular food can guarantee cancer protection. But science does show that certain dietary habits can promote the disease.
Food and Cancer Risk
According to popular studies, the following foods and eating patterns can affect your risk of cancer.
Such foods contain naturally occurring substances known as phytonutrients. They are found in:
- Polyphenols in herbs, vegetables, tea, coffee, chocolate, spices, nuts, apples, onions, berries, and other plants
- Allium compounds in garlic, leeks, chives, and onions
- Carotenoids, or carotenes, which are present in red, orange, yellow, and some dark-green vegetables
Fiber can improve your digestion and add bulk to stool. Your body needs fiber to move food quickly through the digestive system. Dietary fiber nourishes the microbiome, which is a healthy community of microbes that lives in the digestive tract. Studies have linked a healthy microbiome to lower cancer risk.
Foods packed with fiber include:
- Whole grains and seeds, like barley, Kamut, spelt, oats, corn, bulgur, psyllium, and rye
- Whole grain bread and pasta
- Legumes and pulses, like beans, lentils, and peas
- Vegetables and fruits
Antioxidants protect the body against oxidants, which can cause cell damage. Oxidants are produced naturally, by normal cell processes. There are also environmental sources, including pollution and cigarette smoke.
Antioxidants are found in foods that are rich in beta carotene, selenium, and vitamins C and E.
Consuming alcohol increases the risk of developing certain types of cancer.
Vitamins and minerals
Eating foods that are rich in calcium, iodine, vitamins A, D, and K, and the B vitamins can help reduce your risk of cancer.
The major sources of animal protein are meat, poultry, shellfish, fish, dairy products, and eggs.
Red meat, including pork, beef, veal, and lamb, are likely to contribute to cancer risk. Processed meat, such as ham, lunch meats, bacon, meat jerky, hot dogs, salami, and other cured meat products, are also known to increase cancer risk. People who consume more than 18 ounces of processed meat per week are most often at a higher risk.
Is there a connection between food and cancer?
Finding explicit links between foods or nutrients and cancer is a challenge for the following reasons:
- Some studies also show that preparation techniques may affect food’s degree of benefit.
- All foods contain substances that can either reduce or increase cancer risk.
- Individual people usually eat and drink different types of foods, which makes it difficult to examine the interactions within the body.
- The effect of food on your body depends on how much you eat.
"While eight in ten cancer patients receive some kind of nutrition advice, only eight in ten of the clinicians providing this advice are aware of the clinical nutrition guidelines for cancer patients. Advice therefore falls short of the best possible and typically relapses to the standard advice of a balanced diet and regular physical activity," says Dr. Steve Wootton (University of Southampton).
Fruits and vegetables can lower your risk of the following cancer types:
- Head and neck cancers
- Lung cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Stomach cancer
The phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables work to lower the risk of cancer. Some of them also help regulate hormones like estrogen. Others can help block inflammation or slow down the growth of cancer cells.
Plant-based foods are known to help prevent cancer.
For instance, frequently eating cruciferous vegetables, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, and kale, is linked with a lower risk of cancer.
Cruciferous vegetables can protect the body against esophageal cancer, head and neck cancers, and stomach cancer. Studies also suggest that cruciferous vegetables can regulate enzymes that can fight off cancer cells.
Whole soy foods, such as edamame, tofu, soy milk, and miso, contain phytonutrients that can protect the body against certain types of cancer.
According to studies, eating up to 3 servings of soy products may reduce one’s risk of breast cancer. Additionally, doctors recommend excluding concentrated isoflavone powders and pills from the diet.
This is a type of carotenoid found in tomatoes and their byproducts. Other sources rich in lycopene are watermelon, pink grapefruit, and apricots.
Lycopene is known to protect against lung, prostate, colon, stomach, and esophageal cancers.
Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
Your body needs vitamins and minerals to repair itself, grow and develop, and perform essential functions.
Folate is a type of B vitamin that’s found in leafy greens, fruits, dried beans, and peas.
People with low folate levels have a higher risk of breast, colon, and pancreatic cancers.
You can get the recommended amount of folic acid from natural supplements. Foods like breads and cereals also include folic acid.
According to one study, people who regularly took prescribed multivitamins pills for over a decade saw a reduction in the formation of colon polyp. If they’re not removed in time, some polyps can develop into colorectal cancer. Multivitamins reduce polyps and lower colorectal cancer risk.
While selenium supplements do not prevent skin cancer, the nutrient is known to reduce new cases of prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers.
A high intake of vitamin C may lower stomach cancer risk.x
The Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial found that men who took vitamin E supplements had a higher risk of prostate cancer.
Taking high-dose vitamin C and E supplements may increase the risk of a recurrence of the neck and head cancer.
Taking in more calories than your body needs causes weight gain. The following foods dramatically increase your calorie count and contribute to obesity:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and fruit-flavored drinks
- Full-fat dairy products like whole milk cheese
- High-fat meats like duck, hamburger, bacon, fried chicken with skin, ham, sausage, hot dogs, and deli meats.