Eat Right to Reduce Cancer Risk

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October Is Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Eat Right to Reduce Cancer Risk

When it comes to cancer there are no guarantees. However, some of these healthy habits may significantly reduce your risks:

  • Focus on fiber. Eat foods rich in fiber, especially those made with whole grains, to help reduce the risk of several cancers.
  • Find healthy fats. Meals containing olive oil or fish help protect against cancer, and avoiding fat from meat, dairy, and processed foods may decrease cancer risk.
  • Go vegetarian. Lower cancer risk by eating plenty of fruits, whole grains, legumes, and vegetables (especially tomatoes and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage), which helps to optimize body weight, immune function, hormone regulation, and to avoid meat-related carcinogens.
  • Avoid alcohol. Use alcoholic beverages in moderation or not at all to reduce the risk of many cancers.
  • Get regular checkups. Many cancers can be prevented or discovered in the early stages with screening tests available through your doctor.

Continue reading for more in-depth information on maintaining your health through diet.

Whole grains (such as rye, brown rice, and whole wheat) contain high amounts of insoluble fiber—the type of fiber some scientists believe may help protect against a variety of cancers. In an analysis of the data from many studies, people who eat relatively high amounts of whole grains were reported to have low risks of lymphomas and cancers of the pancreas, stomach, colon, rectum, breast, uterus, mouth, throat, liver, and thyroid. Most research focusing on the relationship between cancer and fiber has focused on breast and colon cancers.

Consuming a diet high in insoluble fiber is best achieved by switching from white rice to brown rice and from bakery goods made with white flour or mixed flours to 100% whole wheat bread, whole rye crackers, and whole grain pancake mixes. Refined white flour is generally listed on food packaging labels as "flour," "enriched flour," "unbleached flour," "durum wheat," "semolina," or "white flour." Breads containing only whole wheat are often labeled "100% whole wheat."

The following two possibilities are both strongly supported by research findings:

  • Some foods consumed by vegetarians may protect against cancer.
  • Eating meat may increase the risk of cancer.

Compared with meat eaters, most, but not all, studies have found that vegetarians are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer. Vegetarians have also been shown to have stronger immune function, possibly explaining why vegetarians may be partially protected against cancer. Female vegetarians have been reported to have lower estrogen levels compared with meat-eating women, possibly explaining a lower incidence of uterine and breast cancers. A reduced risk for various cancers is only partly, not totally, explained by differences in body weight, smoking habits, and other lifestyle issues.

Fruits and Vegetables
Consumption of fruits and vegetables is widely accepted as lowering the risk of most common cancers. Many doctors recommend that people wishing to reduce their risk of cancer eat several pieces of fruit and several portions of vegetables every day. Optimal intakes remain unknown.

Most doctors also recommend that people should not consider supplements as substitutes for the real thing. Some of the anticancer substances found in produce have probably not yet been discovered, while others are not yet available in supplement form. More important, some research, particularly regarding synthetic beta-carotene, does not support the idea that taking supplements has the same protective value against cancer as does consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Flavonoids are found in virtually all herbs and plant foods. Consumption of flavonoid-rich onions and apples contain large amounts of one flavonoid called quercetin. Consumption of flavonoids in general, or quercetin-containing foods in particular, has been associated with protection against cancer in some, but not all, preliminary studies.

Tomatoes contain lycopene—an antioxidant similar in structure to beta-carotene. Most lycopene in our diet comes from tomatoes, though traces of lycopene exist in other foods. Lycopene inhibits the proliferation of cancer cells in test tube research.

A review of published research found that higher intake of tomatoes or higher blood levels of lycopene correlated with protection from cancer in 57 of 72 studies. Findings in 35 of these studies were statistically significant. Evidence of a protective effect for tomato consumption was strongest for cancers of the prostate, lung, and stomach, but some evidence of a protective effect also appeared for cancers of the pancreas, colon, rectum, esophagus (throat), mouth, breast, and cervix.

Cruciferous Vegetables
Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower belong to the Brassica family of vegetables, also known as "cruciferous" vegetables. In test tube and animal studies, these foods have been associated with anticancer activity, possibly due to several substances found in these foods, such as indole-3-carbinol, glucaric acid (calcium D-glucarate), and sulforaphane.

Fish eaters have been reported to have low risks of cancers of the mouth, throat, stomach, colon, rectum, pancreas, lung, breast, and prostate. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are thought by some researchers to be the components of fish responsible for protection against cancer.

Olive oil
Olive oil consumption has been associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer in several preliminary reports. Oleic acid, the main fatty acid found in olive oil, does not appear to be the cause of this protective effect, and scientists now guess that some as-yet undiscovered substance in olive oil might be responsible for the apparent protective effect of olive oil consumption.

Dietary Fat
In studying data from country to country, incidence of ovarian cancer correlates with dietary fat intake. According to preliminary research, consumption of saturated fat, dietary cholesterol (as found in eggs), and animal fat in general correlates with the risk of ovarian cancer.

Preliminary studies suggest dietary fat may correlate with the risk of uterine cancer. Some of the excess risk appears to result from increased body weight that results from a high-fat diet.

Women in countries that consume high amounts of meat and dairy fat have a high risk of breast cancer, while women in countries that mostly consume rice, soy, vegetables, and fish (instead of dairy fat and meat) have a low risk of breast cancer.

Alcohol and Cancer
An analysis of studies using the best available methodology found that women who drink alcohol have a higher risk of breast cancer compared with teetotalers. Alcohol consumption during early adulthood may be more of a risk factor than alcohol consumption at a later age.

Some, though not all, studies have reported that alcohol increases estrogen levels. Increased estrogen levels might explain the increase in risk.

In a preliminary report, drinkers with low intake of folic acid had a 32% increased risk of breast cancer compared with nondrinkers; however, the excess risk was only 5% in those drinkers who consumed adequate levels of folic acid. In the same report, women taking multivitamins containing folic acid and having at least 1.5 drinks per day had a 26% lower risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared with women drinking the same amount of alcohol but not taking folic acid-containing vitamins.

Alcohol consumption significantly increases the risk of cancers of the mouth (oral/oropharyngeal cancer), throat (esophageal cancer), and voice box (laryngeal cancer), particularly in conjunction with cigarette smoking. Most studies documenting these associations also report that former drinkers have significantly lower risks for these cancers compared with current drinkers. Strong correlations between alcohol consumption and the risk of having liver cancer have also been reported.

Preliminary studies have reported associations between an increased intake of sugar or sugar-containing foods and an increased risk of breast cancer, though this link does not appear consistently in published research. Whether these associations exist because sugar directly promotes cancer or because sugar consumption is only a marker for some other dietary or lifestyle factor remains unknown.


Copyright © 2008 Aisle7. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of the Aisle7 content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Aisle7. Healthnotes Newsletter is for educational or informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose or provide treatment for any condition. If you have any concerns about your own health, you should always consult with a healthcare professional. Aisle7 shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon. AISLE7 is a registered trademark of Aisle7.

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