I recently took a class in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. We focused on the links between nutrition and degenerative diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer disease.
I was utterly fascinated by the topic, in particular by the inextricable link between food and cancer.
How cancer can be related to food? Are there ways to prevent it just by following a correct diet? And how exercise falls into the equation?
The answers to these questions are much simpler than one might think!
What is Cancer?
According to the American Cancer Society, cancer is a group of diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. If the spread is not controlled, it can ultimately results in death.
About 1,638,910 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2012. And sadly, about 577,190 Americans are expected to die of cancer, which is more than 1,500 people a day. Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the US, exceeded only by heart disease, accounting for nearly 1 every 4 deaths.
What factors are related to the risk of cancer?
Cancer is caused by both internal and external factors. This means that, contrary to a popular belief, genetic heritable factors are not the only ones playing a role in the spreading of this disease. Environmental factors and, moreover, one’s lifestyle are also crucial.
In other words, there are many things that we can do in preventing cancer: external factors may act together or in sequence to initiate or promote the development of cancer.
Today we know how it’s possible to mitigate external factors.
What are the most known causes of cancer?
It’s no news at all that smoking tobacco may trigger cancer. What is really surprising is that notwithstanding all the warning signs and intense campaigns, people are still not paying attention to that.
The result is that in 2012 around 173,200 individuals are expected to die from smoking related cancer, just in the US.
Intense sun exposure (to UV rays) is closely linked to skin cancer, which accounts for almost 2 million deaths each year. A risk that can be avoided by just applying some sunscreen and avoiding taking sun during certain times of the day.
Last, but not least, an healthy lifestyle can dramatically reduce cancer risks.
According to a recent statistic issued by the American Cancer Society about ⅓ of the 577,190 cancer deaths expected to occur in 2012 will be related to overweight, obesity, physical inactivity, and/or poor nutrition choices.
In other words, 30% to 35% of all cancer deaths are diet related.
8 simple rules to get on the right track
# 1: Be lean
Maintain your body weight within the normal range is the first golden rule for optimal health.
Check frequently that your BMI (Body Mass Index) within the correct range. If you don’t know how to calculate your BMI, you can do it for free here.
Being overweight or obese increases the risk for esophagus, colon, pancreas, kidney, breast and uterus cancers. Body fat contributes also to liver and gallbladder cancers.
# 2: Eat more vegetables and fruit
Eating five portions of vegetables (non-starchy) and fruits every day, this may help decrease your risk for cancers in the stomach, mouth, esophagus and lungs.
Non-starchy vegetables are: green leafy vegetables (such as kale, spinach, and watercress), broccoli, carrots and eggplants; just to name a few.
# 3: Focus on plants rich with micronutrients and phytochemicals
As pointed out by many studies; fruits, vegetables and whole grains are an excellent source for essential vitamins and minerals which are necessary to maintain an healthy immune system. Vitamins A, D, E, K are powerful antioxidants, that protect cells from damage caused by oxidation.
For instance, the antioxidant function of Vitamin C and E inhibits free radical formation and repair damaged DNA, therefore inhibiting the initiation phase of cancer.
In some plants like tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, ginger, pepper, garlic and sweet potatoes there are thousands of biologically active compounds, called “phytochemicals”, that are not considered nutrients, but according to the recent studies significantly decrease the risk for cancer.
# 4: Avoid drinking empty calories and eating energy dense foods
The consumption of sugary beverages and energy dense foods contribute to the obesity, which, in turn, can significantly increases the risk for cancer.
#5: Limit sodium intake
Studies show that the excessive salt consumption may be one of the cause of stomach, liver and stomach cancers. You should limit to the maximum extent possible the consumption of foods high in sodium, such as highly processed foods.
# 6: Alcohol
If you drink, you should limit the consumption of alcoholic beverages to no more than one drink per day if you’re a woman and two drinks if you’re a man.
Recent studies showed that alcohol consumption can increase risk for oral, esophageal, colorectal and breast cancers.
# 6: Be physically active as part of everyday life
Avoid being sedentary; physical activity decreases the risk for colorectal, esophageal, kidney and breast cancer.
A daily “dose” of moderate exercise is recommended to everybody, no matter their age.
# 7: Not too much red meat
The American Institute of Cancer Research suggests to not exceed “red meat” consumption to more than 18 oz (500 gr) per week. And to avoid, to the maximum extent possible highly-processed meat such as bacon, sausage and hot dogs.
# 8: Importance of women breastfeed
The likelihood of breast cancer, according to recent studies of the American Institute of Cancer, decrease if the mother breastfeeds. In addition, the milk from the mother should prevent the later development of obesity in the infants that may lead to cancer in his future life.
What I wanted to give you here is just an overview of this topic, if you’re interested I strongly suggest you read “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a global perspective”, World Cancer Research Fund/ American Institute of Cancer Research. It’s a great book and an absolute eye-opener!
German philosopher and anthropologist Ludgwig Feuerbach wrote in the 19th century that “You are what you eat”, and man he was right!
Take care of yourself, day by day, step by step, for a better and brighter future!
By Margherita Bisoglio