Cancer is a disease that easily strikes fear into our hearts and minds. Unfortunately, most of us also have a loved one or a friend who has been diagnosed with the dreaded disease.
The good news, however, is that research has shown that most lifestyle-related cancers are highly preventable. You can start taking active steps to fight cancer for you and your family today.
The link between Cancer and Diet
It turns out that your mother was right! She wanted you to finish your vegetables and for a good reason. A healthy diet can be just as important as avoiding cigarette smoke and alcohol when it comes to cancer prevention. In fact, it has been predicted that 30-40% of all kinds of cancers can be prevented with a healthy diet and lifestyle (1)
What you eat on a regular basis (as well as what you don’t) can have a strong effect on your immediate and future risk of developing certain types of cancer. This can be easily observed when comparing the rates of certain types of cancers in Asian or Mediterranean populations in relation to any of the Western population (2)
Certain whole-foods have been found to actively prevent cancer, and other types of processed foods have been found to increase your risk. This doesn’t mean that you can never eat take out again, it simply means being conscious of your diet as a whole and ensuring that the majority of your dietary intake is healthy and nutritious.
While no single superfood will prevent all cancers these dietary habits are a good place to start:
Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
You may have heard of the popular buzzword- antioxidant. Antioxidants, such as the vitamin C found in oranges or the lycopene found in tomatoes are responsible for protecting our cells from the harmful effects of free radicals.
Free radicals are naturally occurring within our bodies as a result of oxygen consumption, but we are also exposed to external free radicals as a result of pollution, smoking or certain foods. Free radicals are responsible for cell damage and are largely the cause of us aging and developing certain types of cancers.
In simple terms, think of antioxidants as an army of reinforcements you can bring in to protect you from many of the lifestyle-related types of cancer. Antioxidants naturally neutralise the effects of these free radicals.
So, the more fruit and vegetables you include into your daily life, the higher the amount of antioxidants in your body. In addition, these antioxidants also help protect us from other illness by boosting our immune system (3). Each fruit and vegetable supply us with a different antioxidant so be sure to include a large variety of different fruit and vegetables in your diet.
Try to include between 5 and 7 portions of fruit and vegetables per day.
Fill up on Fibre
When you naturally increase your fruit and vegetable intake, the amount of fibre you ingest also increases. Fibre is also known as roughage, and it is the part of the plant (fruit, vegetable or grain) that our bodies cannot digest.
The advantage of this is two-fold, firstly you can think of fibre as a very effective broom which cleans your digestive system as it passes through. The end result is a lowered risk of cancers specific to your digestive system like colon cancer or stomach (4).
Secondly, research has found that your happy gut bacteria (probiotics) are fed with the fibre that your system cannot digest. The offshoot of this is that the good bacteria digest the fibre we supply in exchange for short chain fatty acids. These fatty acids are then thought to lower our risk of colon cancer (5)
Start increasing your daily fibre intake by choosing brown, wholegrain products instead of the white, processed options:
- Brown, seeded bread instead of white bread
- Brown rice instead of white rice
- Eating sweet potato or whole jacket potato instead of French fries
- Eating popcorn instead of potato chips
- Eating a whole grain like quinoa or barley
- Using wholegrain flour instead of white flour
Increase your Fatty Fish Intake
In certain cases, cancer is a disease of inflammation. Inflammation as a result of years of poor dietary practices as well as an unhealthy lifestyle.
In this regard increasing your weekly intake of fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, and anchovies) helps to lower your inflammation and in turn your risk of cancer.
Fatty fish supply our bodies with the essential fatty acid, omega 3. Our bodies cannot manufacture the fatty acid, and it is, therefore, important to include fatty fish it in your weekly diet.
Recent research has found that omega 3’s are especially important when it comes to preventing breast cancer specifically (6). A high intake of the fatty acid not only lowers the risk of breast cancer but also increases the survival rate for those that have already been diagnosed with cancer.
Try to include at least two (150g) portions of fatty fish per week and if this is not possible start supplementing with omega 3 fish oil capsules (7).
Carcinogenic Foods to Avoid
Just as there are foods which bring down your risk of cancer, there are those that are known to be carcinogenic or cancer causing. The message is not to completely cut these foods out of your diet but rather to focus on increasing the foods which decrease your risk of cancer and to consume the unhealthy options infrequently.
Barbecued, Grilled or Blackened Meat
As delicious as grilled or barbecued meat is, a high intake of meat and specifically well-cooked meat is linked to an increased risk of many common cancers such as breast, colon, and prostate (8). Rather opt for your steak to be medium or medium rare to be safer.
Processed, Cured Meat
The sad news is that our favourite hams, bacon and other cured meats have also been proven to be carcinogenic (9). Limit your intake of processed meat and rather opt for whole options like chicken breast or cottage cheese as protein options.
There is a sneaky fat lurking in many bought, processed food products. It is known as trans fat, and it is linked to an increased risk of cancer (10). Manufacturers often include this type of fat due to its extremely long shelf life. Good for them, bad for us. Avoid trans fats by reading labels and avoiding products containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils or fats.