With almost daily contradictory proclamations from the media of the latest nutritional news, the simple business of eating can become very confusing. Is it okay to eat butter and bacon or not? Are carbohydrates the very worst of foods or are they actually the healthiest? Is coconut oil a miracle food or just another saturated fat to avoid. It seems impossible to make an informed decision about what to eat. Sometimes it’s easiest to just stop listening.
In actuality, the topic of healthy nutrition is quite simple. Over many decades the scientific community has amassed a huge amount of excellent research regarding the health consequences of eating certain foods, information that, contrary to the headlines, is clear and straightforward. That is what this particular article is about – easy guidelines for choosing foods that offer you the best chance to avoid some of the common cancers suffered today.
In spring of last year (2017) two articles by T. Colin Campbell published in the journal “Nutrition and Cancer” delved into the history of our understanding of cancer and its relationship to the food we eat (1,2). A debate has been raging for centuries between those that believe cancer is “constitutional” in origin, with multiple factors that might come into play for its development, treatment and prevention, and those who present cancer as a “local” disease best treated with surgery without consideration of its probable causes and possible prevention. The “local” theory was first presented during the late 1700s and has prevailed through the 1800s and 1900s and even into our modern health system. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments that are the basis of cancer treatment today are a direct consequence of the “local” theory of cancer and its accompanying belief that the disease is fought through specific treatments aimed solely at the cancer site itself. It is now becoming more and more apparent that the development of cancer is influenced by many different factors, not the least of which is nutrition.
In 1982 a landmark report from the US National Academy of Sciences (one of whose thirteen authors was T. Colin Campbell) pointed out that the contribution of nutrition to cancer formation is of paramount importance (3). Their supporting scientific evidence was extensive and included epidemiological, experimental animal and cell culture studies published between 1940 and 1980. The authors admitted that it was not possible at that time to make “firm scientific pronouncements” regarding the relationship between diet and cancer. However given the state of scientific knowledge of nutrition in 1982, two suggestions were offered as the best precautionary recommendations for cancer avoidance.
These two nutritional goals were;
1. Reduce dietary fat to 30% of total diet calories
2. Consume more vegetables, fruits and grains (as whole foods)
Remember that this report came out in 1982. Nutritional research continued and even intensified over the next thirty six years, adding a wealth of new information that has served to strengthen the evidence for the direct relationship between diet and cancer. The result is an expanded set of recommendations for eating to defeat cancer.
The up-to-date “best available evidence” now gives us sufficiently compelling scientific documentation to follow the following six dietary goals (4);
(1) limiting or avoiding dairy products to reduce the risk of prostate cancer (5,6,7)
(2) limiting or avoiding alcohol to reduce the risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon, rectum, and breast (8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19)
(3) avoiding red and processed meat to reduce the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum (20,21,22,23,24,25,26,27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36,37,38,39,40)
(4) avoiding grilled, fried, and broiled meats to reduce the risk of cancers of the colon, rectum, breast, prostate, kidney, and pancreas (this includes all meats including poultry and fish) (41,42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49,50)
(5) encouraging the consumption of soy products during adolescence to reduce the risk of breast cancer in adulthood and to reduce the risk of recurrence and mortality for women previously treated for breast cancer (51,52,53,54,55)
(6) emphasizing fruits and vegetables to reduce risk of several common forms of cancer (56)
We don’t need to wait for absolute certainty and agreement among all the institutions and services that have some stake in the food we choose to eat. Governments; hospitals, schools and senior care homes; physicians, dietitians and other health care professionals; pharmaceutical companies; food producers and food distributors are all anxious to exert their influences. It could take decades more before a working accord centered around eating for health is achieved. For people like us, just trying to eat food that is not only tasty but healthy too, we can adopt these six simple principles knowing that they are backed by the strength of years of study of the relationships between nutrition and cancer. We need have no worries about the possible side effects of taking this step. One thing is already easy to agree on…. there is no downside to eating more whole fruits and vegetables.
1 Campbell, T.C. The Past, Present, and Future of Nutrition and Cancer: Part 1—Was A Nutritional Association Acknowledged a Century Ago? Nutrition and Cancer, 2017;69(5): 811-817.
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