LONDON, May 2: There doesn’t seem to be a day that passes without a new cancer statistic being published — one of the most alarming from recent years is that one in two of us will go on to develop the disease.
It makes so many of us feel vulnerable, and naturally we want to know what — if anything — we can do to protect ourselves. As a dietitian and nutritionist for the past 25 years, I have treated hundreds of people, young and old and often a key question, even if I was seeing them for a different issue entirely, was what we should and shouldn’t eat to reduce the likelihood of developing cancer, and how can food help us fight the disease if we are diagnosed?
The incidence of different cancers varies hugely but, worryingly, the numbers of people affected are on the rise.
Bowel cancer is now the third most common cause of cancer death in women in the UK, according to the charity Bowel Cancer UK. And it is increasingly affecting younger people, with a 45 per cent increase in those under 50 being diagnosed.
Breast cancer, the most common cancer in women in the UK with around 54,000 new cases each year, is also on the rise.
Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show an 8 per cent rise in the number of people with pancreatic cancer since 2012.
Better detection and our longer lives play a part in rising cancer rates, but our lifestyle and environment must also be part of the picture — what we put into our body has a profound impact, with many cancers, from stomach to bowel, linked to diet and weight gain.
A massive two-thirds of bowel cancer cases could be prevented by eating, drinking and living well according to the NHS.
Weight gain is strongly linked to an increased risk of stomach and oesophageal cancer, according to a new study from the National Cancer Institute in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean Diet — a long-time staple of healthy eating lore — has recently been found by the World Cancer Research Fund to reduce the risk of contracting one of the most dangerous forms of breast cancer by 40 per cent.
The same study also found a strong relationship between weight gain around the waist and incidence of womb cancer — even a small increase in waist size can lead to a 21 per cent increase in risk of the disease.
The foods and nutrients we eat — and what we avoid — can have a huge impact on our wellbeing and cancer risk.
And if someone already has a diagnosis of cancer, what they eat is also incredibly important, especially as cancer treatment can make eating difficult, causing nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, mouth ulcers and extreme exhaustion. Unfortunately there are many misconceptions about food and cancer.
So here, I’ll separate the wheat from the chaff — I’ll also show you the tweaks to your diet that could help reduce your risk.
THE TRUTH ABOUT DIET AND CANCER
There are all sorts of ‘miracle’ anti-cancer diets out there but I strongly advise anyone against embarking on a dramatic ‘clean eating’ or exclusion eating plan.
Not only do they add to the fear of anyone worried about developing cancer, they can also worsen the outcomes of those living with the disease.
People end up malnourished and there just isn’t the evidence to support such extreme strategies. So let’s look at the biggest myths around food and cancer and see what adds up . . .
Myth: Meat will give you cancer
Fact: Several studies have suggested that a high consumption of red or processed meat — bacon, ham — is linked with an increase in the risk of bowel cancer. But the evidence for the risks is greater for a diet heavy in processed meat than having good-quality lean steak a couple of times a week — and the latter will provide all the eight essential amino acids our bodies need for growth, brain development, healthy bones and endorphins (happy hormones).
Overall, studies suggest that eating about 50g of processed meat a day (around two slices of ham or a slice of bacon) may increase the risk of bowel cancer by around 20 per cent — one theory is that nitrosamines, compounds formed when we eat meat, damage the DNA in our cells.
Current guidelines are to eat 500g or less of red meat a week, which gives us real scope for enjoying some delicious meat-based meals.
Bear in mind that a bolognese sauce made with 500g of lean, good-quality beef mince should serve a good six hungry adults.
Myth: Wine protects you
Fact: Studies have shown the antioxidants in wine may protect against cancer and other serious illnesses — but it’s only in a laboratory setting that red wine’s antioxidants offer any real benefits. In fact, studies find a convincing relationship between drinking too much alcohol and the development of mouth, throat, oesophageal, liver and bowel cancers.
Alcohol is also a key factor in increasing the risk of breast cancer in women. We should aim to drink no more than two units per day for men and one for women, with a maximum of 14 units a week.
Myth: Dairy foods cause cancer
Fact: Studies have not yet given clear results. Recent research shows a higher intake of calcium (found in dairy products) can protect against bowel cancer, but some early research also suggests there could be a link between dairy intake and the risk of developing prostate and ovarian cancers.
For breast cancer the evidence is conflicting. A link between breast cancer and dairy products has been suggested, possibly because of the saturated fats they contain, or contaminants such as pollutants and other environmental toxins, but there is no clear evidence to support this.