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December 1999 Issue
Diet and the Risk of Cancer
by Ronda L. Halpin
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One of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer is also one of the simplest: eat right. If that sounds too easy, rest assured that it is one of the most critical factors in preventing cancer. In fact, medical research tells us that diet and nutrition factors can influence 70 percent of all preventable cancers and 35 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S.

Many dietary factors can affect cancer risk: types of foods, food preparation methods, portion sizes, food variety, and overall caloric balance. Cancer risk can be reduced by an overall dietary pattern that includes a high proportion of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans), limited amounts of meat, dairy, and other high-fat foods, and a balance of caloric intake and physical activity.

So what are you waiting for? Dig into those fruits and vegetables, bring on the onion and garlic, and munch on more grains and nuts. Those are just a few of the foods that contain plant chemicals that have been shown to keep us healthy.

What is Cancer?

There are over 200 known types of cancer. Simply put, all cancers involve the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells derived from normal tissues, which eventually can cause death by spreading from the site of origin to other sites. Warning signs can include:

  • a change in bowel or bladder habits
  • a sore that does not heal
  • unusual bleeding or drainage
  • thickening or lump in the breast or elsewhere
  • indigestion or swallowing difficulty
  • a change in a wart or mole
  • persistent cough or hoarseness

Risk Factors

While your diet can have a major influence on your risk for cancer, it is only one of several lifestyle factors that play a role. Unlike hereditary risks, diet and other lifestyle factors are completely within your power to control. In general, it is suggested that you follow the following guidelines:

  1. Nutrition: Eat the right foods, get the right nutrients. Read on to learn more.
  2. Smoking: Quit. Period.
  3. Sun: Avoid overexposure to dramatically reduce your risk of skin cancer.
  4. Exercise: Remember, it is an important part of any healthy lifestyle.

Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, smoking is a risk factor for cancers of the lungs, mouth, throat, larynx, bladder, and several other organs. Unprotected exposure to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer.

One particular cancer in which diet can really make a difference is colon cancer. It's the second biggest cancer killer in men (after lung) and the third in women. Studies have repeatedly shown that individuals who stick to a diet low in saturated fats and high in fruits, vegetables and grains have significantly lower risk of colon cancer. A major component in reducing the risk of colon cancer is to cut back on the saturated fats in your diet, particularly from red meats.

Prostate cancer is another cancer in which diet appears to play a significant role in prevention. It is the fourth most common cancer. There is a definite link between a high-fat, high protein diet and prostate cancer. Therefore, cutting back on fatty meats--particularly red meats--will reduce a man's risk of developing prostate cancer. (Meat eaters have two and a half times the rate of prostate cancer than do vegetarians.) Also, a recent study of Italian men found that those who had increased their consumption of tomato sauce had a decreased incidence of prostate cancer. Tomato contains the phytochemical lycopene, a substance that researchers believe keep cancer cells from forming or attaching to healthy cells. You should also cut down on fats from milk and milk products, such as whole-milk ice creams and cheeses. And studies on Japanese men (who historically have much lower rates of prostate cancer than American men) suggest there is a food compound called genisten that may also help protect men against prostate cancer. Genisten can be found in soybeans, soy meal and tofu.

What you eat also may have a great influence on whether or not you develop stomach cancer--which has a very low 5-year survival rate of only 16 percent. Stomach cancer is more common in some parts of the world--such as Japan, Korea, parts of Eastern Europe and Latin America--than in the United States. People in these areas eat many foods that are preserved by drying, smoking, salting or pickling. In Japan, which boasts an overall low cancer rate, stomach cancer causes more deaths than all other malignancies combined and is almost six times more common than it is in the United States, presumably because of all the pickled, salted, barbecued and smoked foods that the Japanese eat. Researchers believe that eating foods preserved in these ways may play a role in the development of stomach cancer. Other studies have suggested that fresh foods (particularly fresh fruits and vegetables and properly frozen or refrigerated fresh foods), may actually protect against disease.

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