Current research indicates that the foods we eat can influence our susceptibility to certain types of cancer. High energy and high fat diets can lead to obesity and are generally thought to increase the risk of some cancers. Plant-based diets high in fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes and wholegrain foods may help to prevent cancer.
Diet is just one of the lifestyle factors that influence the risk of developing cancer. Smoking, obesity, alcohol, sun exposure and physical activity levels are also important.
Food and some common cancers
Some common cancers (and how they are affected by what we eat) include:
Foods to ‘eat less’
Foods to limit in your diet or eat less of include:
Foods to ‘eat more’
The strongest protective anti-cancer effect has been shown with:
Include more of these vegetables and fruits in your diet along with other varieties.
Seven a day
Eating seven or more serves daily of a variety of grains, grain products, legumes, roots and tubers will also provide protective benefits against cancer. The less processed the grains, the better. Diets high in refined starch and refined sugar may increase the risk of stomach cancer and bowel cancer.
Meat and cancer – the research is not clear
There has been a lot of conflicting scientific evidence about the role of red meat, in particular processed meat, in relation to cancer risk. There is sufficient evidence to suggest a link between processed meat and an increase in colon cancer risk. While not all studies claim to see an effect, no studies have found that eating red meat is protective against developing cancer.
Some research suggests that eating burnt or charred meat may increase cancer risk, but the evidence is unclear.
It may be that meat itself does not cause cancer, but that meat-rich diets simply don’t provide as much protection against cancer as plant foods. Experts recommend eating around 65 to 100g of red meat three to four times a week.
Fats and cancer
There has been a great deal of interest in the possible association between fat and cancer. Current evidence does not indicate a direct link between fat intake and particular types of cancer (with the possible exception of prostate cancer). However, a high fat diet may lead to obesity, which is a risk factor for several cancers including cancer of the colon, breast, kidney, oesophagus, gallbladder and endometrium.
Supplements are not the answer
Results of studies that show a protective effect of foods containing certain nutrients should not be taken to mean that these nutrients, when isolated and taken as supplements, will provide the same benefits for cancer prevention. In some cases, there has been an increased risk of cancer in those people who take nutrient supplements at doses higher than the amount of that nutrient normally eaten in foods.
Suspect foods examined
While a high energy, low fibre diet may increase a person’s risk of developing cancer, some individual foods have also been singled out as potentially causing cancer (carcinogenic). These include:
Treating cancer with food
While food plays an important role in preventing some cancers, the therapeutic value of food in treating existing cancer is less clear. It is true that a person with cancer needs excellent nutrition in order to better cope with the physical demands of the illness and the rigours of medical treatment. However, claims that particular foods, vitamins or micronutrients can kill cancer cells should be viewed with skepticism. To date, there is little scientific proof that a particular food or supplement can cure cancer or destroy cancer cells.
Recently some Japanese studies have found that green tea may delay the development and spread of certain cancers. Other studies have suggested that soy may also have a similar effect. Although this work is preliminary, it may suggest a more important role for food in the treatment of cancer in the future.
Nutrition for the person with cancer is important for many reasons, including:
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