Spotlight on Nutrition and Cancer

Never has there been so much talk and exposure highlighting the important role that nutrition plays in reducing the risk of certain diseases and that includes cancer. It’s a scary word to many people and with cancer rates in the UK increasing, it is highly likely that cancer, will at some point in your lifetime, affect you or someone you know. April was bowel cancer awareness month, which is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and May highlights skin cancer with its sun awareness week, so what better time than now to discuss how nutrition can play a role in the fight against cancer.

With so much information available at our finger tips these days, it is sometimes hard to determine between fact and fiction and this is especially the case when it comes to health and serious matters such as cancer. We now recognise that lifestyle plays a major role in the development of most cancers and this includes our dietary choices. In fact healthier diets could help prevent one in ten cancers! So let’s take a look at some of the proven scientific evidence that tells us exactly what specific foods may be helpful in reducing our risk of cancer, and which items are best avoided.

Fruit & Vegetables

If you haven’t heard that a high intake of fruit and vegetables helps reduce the risk of cancer, you have likely not inhabited planet Earth for the last few years. Both fruit and vegetables contain an abundance of nutrients that have been shown time and time again to help in the prevention of certain cancers, especially mouth, upper throat, bowel and lung cancers. They also contain a good source of natural fibre, which is essential for a healthy bowel, with much research indicating that a high fibre diet can help guard against bowel cancer.

However, most people do not consume the recommended daily amounts of fruit and vegetables and have little variety of them in their diet. Although recommendations used to advise to consume five a day, this year it was advised that to reap optimum health benefits, we should now be consuming ten a day, or in other words 800g of fruit and vegetable every single day. To most people that will be unimaginable, but everyone can start increasing it gradually and remember that something is definitely better than nothing! Adding some berries to you breakfast, more vegetables to your casseroles, snacking on vegetables and dip, half an avocado for a starter before a main meal or adding a grilled mushroom and tomato to your cooked breakfast will all help make up your daily target.

Turmeric

This relatively well known spice may be well used in parts of India and Asia, but is not as commonly used here. That will hopefully change when people realise the fantastic health benefits that this little spice can give. A compound called Curcumin, which is present in Turmeric and is responsible for giving it its bright yellow colour, takes most of the glory for the health benefits provided by this spice.

Curcumin can inhibit the rapid production of cancer cells in the body
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Research has shown it has very powerful anti-inflammatory effects, is a strong antioxidant and has shown strong potential to be helpful in both the treatment and prevention of cancer. A large amount of research over many decades has shown that Curcumin can inhibit the rapid production of cancer cells in the body and has also shown to be advantageous in supressing tumour growth in a variety of different cancers, including breast, pancreatic, colorectal and lung cancers. 

It is an interesting point to consider, that in countries where people consume curcumin at levels of around 100 to 200mg a day over a prolonged time period, certain types of cancer are significantly less prevalent. It is likely if the body of positive evidence continues to grow, curcumin may well obtain an official health claim in some areas such as its anti-inflammatory action, however it is likely to be some years before we may see it being used specifically for helping in the treatment of cancer.

Alcohol

We know that too much alcohol can have a range of detrimental effects on our health, but many people are not even aware they are drinking too much and give little consideration as to how it’s affecting their long term health. In fact alcohol is one of the most well-established causes of cancer. Even light to moderate drinking has been linked to an increase in cancer, especially breast cancer in women. Just one alcoholic drink a day has been shown to give an increased cancer risk and if you drink two or more drinks a day then the chances of developing breast cancer increases by as much as 41%. Research has consistently shown that heavy drinking increases the risk of several types of cancer including liver, oesophagus and breast cancer and possibly pancreatic and stomach cancer as well. If you are a heavy drinker, the risk of getting bowel cancer increases by 50%.

 

Heavy drinking is defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as drinking 5 or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days’. If you fall into this category you really need to adapt strategies to reduce your alcohol intake. The more you cut down on alcohol, the more your risk of cancer is reduced. Try diluting wine or spirits with water so you ultimately drink less alcohol. Set yourself limits during the week and weekend and stick to them.

Dairy Foods

The nutritional value of dairy products, including Delamere Dairy goats’ milk, and the health benefits associated with it including reducing cardiovascular disease risk, osteoporosis and type II diabetes confirms there is a large advantage of consuming dairy as part of a well-balanced diet. 

Over the years various studies have linked dairy products with certain types of cancer, but results have proven inconclusive. Some research has shown that dairy products could reduce the risk of bowel cancer and offer a protective effect, but more research is needed to confirm these results. Overall the vast amount of proven health benefits of dairy foods, outweigh the unproven harms and therefore, as with other foods, dairy products should be consumed and enjoyed as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Garlic

Garlic is certainly one of the most medicinal foods available, offering anti-bacterial anti-viral and anti-microbial effects, with quite a lot of evidence also suggesting it may offer anti-cancer benefits too.

adults should aim to consume one clove a day
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Garlic and other members of the Allium family, including onions, contain sulfide compounds, which have, in many studies, shown to have potential anti-carcinogenic activities. Several research studies have shown an association between increased intake of garlic and reduced risk of certain cancers, including cancers of the stomach, breast, colon, pancreas and oesophagus. With all the other health benefits that garlic is known to provide, the World Health Organisation advises that for general health purposes, adults should aim to consume one clove a day.   You may just want to have a few sprigs of parsley on standby to chew on after eating it, as this little herb can very effectively help remove the bad breath that garlic is known to cause.  

Mushrooms

Mushrooms may not be the first thing you think of when thinking of cancer fighting foods, however certain mushrooms including shiitake and maitake, have been shown to contain specific bioactive compounds that have medicinal properties, which could make them potentially useful in helping in cancer treatment and prevention, although more research is required in this area. Some research has shown that certain mushrooms have anti-tumour and anti-cancer properties, with their bioactive compounds acting as immunotherapeutic agents that stimulate the immune system to help fight against cancer cells. Shiitake mushrooms in particular contain a Beta glucan called Lentinan which has been shown to stimulate the immune system and trigger certain cells and proteins in the body to attack cancer cells. Some research has also shown that Lentinan could slow the growth of some cancer cells too.

Maitake mushrooms, native to China, North America and some parts of Japan, have shown some good potential promise in clinical research, in blocking tumour growth and enhancing immune function, especially in cases of breast and lung cancers. More research is needed however before a full conclusion can be made on just how effective the consumption of mushrooms are in the fight against cancer and if they are, how many must be eaten to give this medicinal effect.

Unfortunately, with the variety of cancers now seen, it will be many years before we are able to attain more definitive research and evidence on what specific foods may be of help in the prevention and treatment of cancer in all its forms.  Knowing that good nutrition has a huge impact on overall health should be a good incentive to make sure that as much of your diet as possible is made up of fresh produce as opposed to processed foods and by doing this you will be reducing your cancer risk.                                                     

• Curcumin in cancer management: Recent results of analogue design and clinical studies and desirable future research, 2008. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research
• The Multifaceted role of curcumin in cancer prevention and treatment, 2015. Molecules
• Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases, 2003. World Health Organisation
• Recent Developments in mushrooms as anti-cancer therapeutics: A review, 2012. 3 Biotech
• Dairy products and cancer, 2011. Journal of the American College of Nutrition
• Medicinal mushrooms is supportive cancer therapies: An approach to anti-cancer effects and putative mechanisms of action, 2012. Fungal Diversity
• Garlic and Onions: Their Cancer Prevention Properties, 2015. Cancer Prevention Research
• https://www.cancer.gov/research

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