In The Netherlands, 13 people are diagnosed with cancer every hour. It can affect you too. Good to know is that the risk of cancer depends for 40% on your lifestyle. So your daily routine around the kitchen can greatly contribute to the prevention of cancer. In this article we dive into the reasons behind this huge effect of lifestyle. We give you practical tips on what you can do on a daily basis for prevention of cancer and what you should avoid and why. Spoiler: stop using supplements!
The risk of getting cancer is in your own hands
Cancer is a horrible disease that affects many of us, directly and indirectly. In contrast to what you might think, it is not solely an inheritable disease. Scientific research has shown that the risk of developing cancer depends for almost 40% on our lifestyle. After not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight is the most important factor in preventing cancer. What we eat, how much we eat and how much we exercise can reduce the occurrence of cancer. Your bodyweight, or to be precise: your body fatness, has a lot to do with this, as well as how frequently you visit the toilet.
How does this work?
There is strong evidence that greater body fatness increases the risk of the two most common types of cancer, breast and colorectal cancer, and the three hardest to treat: pancreatic, esophageal, and gallbladder cancer. The reason behind this is that a greater fat mass is related to various metabolic, endocrine and inflammatory abnormalities that may contribute to an increased cancer risk. Let’s dive into that:
More body fat, more estrogen, more risk
Greater body fatness is associated with elevated sex hormone levels, such as estrogens. A relatively high and prolonged exposure to estrogens may be associated with an increased risk of breast, ovarian and endometrium cancer.
More body fat, more insulin, more risk
When we eat carbs, they are broken down to glucose to be used by the body. So whenever we eat carbs, our blood glucose levels (blood sugar levels) rise. The pancreas secretes insulin, enabling glucose to enter the cells of our body where it is used for energy or stored for later use. As soon as we need the stored energy, the pancreas releases glucagon, that enables the cells to secrete the stored glucose. Insulin and glucagon work together to maintain a healthy blood sugar level.
Great body fatness, especially when the fat is stored in the abdominal area, is associated with hyperinsulinemia which means the insulin level is too high. Overtime this can lead to insulin resistance, or diabetes type 2, whereby the body is resistant to insulin and glucose can’t be taken up into the cells but remains in the blood stream. Besides obesity, hyperinsulinemia is also associated with high blood pressure, heart disease and heart failure, osteoporosis and certain types of cancer, such as colon, breast, and prostate cancer.
More body fat, more chronic inflammation, more risk
Greater body fatness is associated with chronic inflammation. Inflammation is part of the body’s immune respons. That can be beneficial, if for example you have the flu. But when the immune response holds on for months or years, or the response is overactive for a long period, the inflammation is called chronic. Chronic inflammation is suggested to promote cancer.
What can we do to prevent cancer, starting today?
1. Move around more for less body fat and faster poop
First of all, we need to move around more. That means not only being physically active at the gym, but also walking more and sitting less during the day. By being physical active, our insulin resistance, estrogen levels and inflammation reduce and in that way we can lower our body fatness and indirectly reduce the risk of cancer. Furthermore, being physically active increases the speed at which food passes our digestive system. The quicker this so called transit time, the less time potential carcinogens (elements that promote cancer) in the colon are in contact with the lining of the bowel, and the smaller the opportunity of cancer development.
2. Eat more wholegrains, non-starchy vegetables, fruit and beans
Researchers don’t know exactly why, but wholegrains, non- starchy vegetables, fruit and beans can protect us against several types of cancer. These products contain dietary fiber, that may decrease the risk of colorectal cancer. A possible explanation behind this is that fiber increases the weight of your poop which speeds up the transit time. Furthermore, these products contain vitamins that, especially in their combination, help to reduce the risk of cancer. Therefore, it is best to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day.
3. Avoid fast food and a Western type diet
Fast food and a Western type diet are high in fat, sugar and meat. These type of foods are often easy to buy and to store, contain a lot of calories and are often consumed in large portions with a risk of eating more than necessary. These foods cause an increase in body fatness and therefor indirectly increase the risk of cancer. In addition, after eating these foods, blood sugar levels rise to high levels, which may cause the earlier mentioned hyperinsulinemia.
4. Eat max 400 grams of red and processed meat per week, but don’t grill or BBQ
There is evidence that red and processed meat, especially if it’s prepared on the grill or BBQ is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. The reasons behind this are not fully clear, but there are several factors in meat that contribute to an increased risk. One factor is the heme iron in meat that causes the red color and also irritates and damages the cells in our colon. Another is nitrite that is added to processed meat for preservation but also facilitates the negative effects of heme iron. Grilling of BBQ-ing meat makes it worse: when the fat from the meat drips onto the hot surface of the pan of onto the coals, smoke is produces. The smoke contains carcinogenic (element that promote cancer), that sticks to the meat.
5. Avoid sugary drinks and alcohol
There is an indirect relation between sugar and cancer. Sugar by itself doesn’t cause cancer. But sugary drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and natural fruit drinks increase our energy intake and in that way can lead to excess body fatness. We now know greater body fatness increases the risk of cancer. There are several reasons why alcohol can increase the risk of cancer. When the alcohol is metabolized by our body, it is broken down into smaller elements, that are considered carcinogen. Furthermore, alcohol can lead to increased levels of estrogen, which increases the risk of breast cancer. Last, over- consumption of alcohol can lead to excess body fat, which also increases the risk of cancer.
6. Avoid supplements
There is no convincing evidence that dietary supplements can prevent cancer. Instead, it is possible that some supplements can increase the risk of cancer, such as anti- oxidants and B-vitamins.
Both a deficit and a surplus of nutrients in our diet can increase the risk of cancer. Lots of people take supplements incorrectly thinking if it doesn’t kill me it makes me stronger, not knowing if they actually really need to supplement their diet. A nutritient deficit is not a very common problem, so there is a great risk of over- supplementation.
You have a great hand in preventing cancer by making little changes in your daily routine: Move around a little bit more, eat healthy meals with lot of vegetables, little meat and little starch, and drink lots of water.