Cancer Support: (2) Diet Debates Around Cancer

There’s a lot of noise surrounding cancer and in the first blog of this cancer series, we looked at some of the stats and facts around the disease.

There is a strong desire to pinpoint a single nutritional cause and find the optimal anti-cancer diet but in the meantime, many people are often unaware of some effective modifications that could make a significant difference to their cancer risk.

It helps to start by understanding exactly what cancer is and the possible risk factors that have been identified, so that’s what we’re going to discuss in this blog.

What is Cancer?

Cancer is a collection of different diseases caused by cells misbehaving.

It results from a combination of genetic, epigenetic and cellular changes that begin to alter tissues in the body.

The body’s metabolic (energy regulation processes) and hormone health are also highly significant and can potentially be a cause or driver of cancer disease processes.

Immune health is fundamental too of course. Cancer is clever and possesses the ability to hide from your immune cells. Undetected it’s able to replicate, develop its own blood supply and produce offspring cells that can spread throughout the body.

Cancer is a Spectrum

Cancer is occurring all the time, however, numerous checkpoints and processes are in place throughout the body to prevent it from progressing along its spectrum from abnormality to invasive cancer.

Source: NDHealthfacts

Can Meat or Dairy Cause Cancer?

This seems to be the focus of most nutrition discussions around cancer yet there’s no solid scientific evidence to support either.

The situation is further confused by the fact that cancer is really a group of different diseases. It’s highly likely different nutrition interventions may be identified as helpful in the future.

For example, dairy may possibly be protective of colon cancer, thought to be linked to the positive impact dairy can have on the gut microbiome.

However, it might be helpful to limit (not necessarily avoid as the findings are inconsistent) milk with prostate cancer.

NOTE: This still doesn’t confirm these food groups cause cancer but there may be benefits to limiting them due to the influence they potentially have on digestive or hormone health.

The reality is both are a grey area.

The current discussions and recommendations are primarily based on weak observational studies which have a high risk for confounding (this means the research does not take into account other factors that can influence health).

The studies don’t differentiate important factors like how the meat is cooked, the meat quality or an individual’s fibre, fruit and vegetable intake.

Furthermore, whilst red meat consumption has been declining since the 1970s globally, cancer and heart disease have increased exponentially. Other committees have highlighted the evidence is weak. 

Meat and dairy is also a staple dietary component of modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes like the Masai and Hadza yet they have lower rates of cancer and all chronic diseases. Similarly, both meat and dairy are consumed regularly in many of the “Blue Zones” geographical regions that are home to some of the world’s oldest people.

Ditch The Diet Distraction

Let’s set aside the ongoing meat and dairy debate and look at the confirmed associations that exist with regards to diet, lifestyle and cancer.

Remember some of the risk factors will be more influential based on the frequency of exposure as this will determine the degree of DNA damage it can cause.

There’s also a cumulative effect. When you start stacking numerous factors into your lifestyle the overall risk will, of course, be greater.

There’s strong evidence that the following are associated with an increased risk of cancer

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight/obese
  • Diabetes and poor blood glucose control
  • Alcohol intake > 15 units per week or > 4 units per day
  • Regularly eating high temperature cooked, burnt and charred foods 
  • Excessively hot drinks
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Sedentary lifestyles
  • Air pollution
  • Lack of fruits, vegetables and fibre
  • Processed meats
  • Ultra-processed food consumption (due to nutritional composition, food additives, contact materials, and neoformed contaminants)

It’s also important to consider context as well as frequency.

Whilst fruit and vegetable are protective, they will struggle to diminish the impact of regular binge drinking sessions (scarily defined as consuming > 6 units in a single session for women and >8 units for men).

The occasional chargrilled steak or deep-fried foods in a diet that is otherwise rich in fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, eaten by a relatively content person is a different situation to an individual living on high temperature cooked, takeaway food grabbed on the way home after a stressful workday and chasing it down with some booze to beat insomnia.

In fact, if we head upstream you could argue the difference here is not even the diet choices and meat quality but rather mental health, financial status and lifestyle factors that play a greater role in both behaviours and inflammation, therefore an individual’s cancer risk.

Another common example is people ditching processed meats or animal products to lower their risk, however, if BMI is still in the overweight/obese category and ultra-processed plant-based foods have been substituted, the personal risk is likely still the same.

If you’re still with me (and I totally get why you might have switched off, it’s not feeling like a party right now!) don’t worry, there is heaps you can do with your nutrition and lifestyle that has a protective effect. I’ll be discussing each of these in the next blog.

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