The World Health Organization caused alarm for some recently by releasing a report showing that we’re woefully unaware of the link between cancer and diet or lifestyle.
In the WHO report, researchers stated that new cancer cases might reach 25 million per year in the next two decades, according to The Guardian. That’s a frightening 70 percent increase over current levels and suggests that we need to make some radical changes to our cancer prevention approach.
The organization cited high sugar consumption, alcohol abuse, and obesity as prime suspects in developing certain cancers, suggesting that half of the predicted cases could be prevented with diet or lifestyle changes.
According to the WHO report, the major sources of “preventable” cancer are smoking, infections, obesity, alcohol, air pollution, and radiation.
The chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society added some specifics to those facts: as reported in HTR News, he noted that “bad diet, obesity, and physical inactivity account for 28 percent” of cancers, with smoking accounting for 33 percent.
According to the American Cancer Society’s website, obesity in particular increases the risk of breast, colon, rectum, endometrium, esophagus, pancreas, and kidney cancers. This occurs because the body, in response to carrying more weight, produces extra estrogen and insulin, both of which have the potential to “stimulate cancer growth.”
Other explanations, from Cancer Research UK, suggest that fatty tissues produce an enzyme called aromatase, which affects hormonal balance, again increasing the risk of cancer growth. Outside of obesity, alcohol consumption can also increase the chance of developing cancer of the liver, mouth, breast, bowel, and throat.
Unfortunately, the public is relatively ignorant about cancer prevention by way of diet and lifestyle. Almost three-quarters of Canadians polled in 2009 were unaware of the “definite link” between cancer and lack of exercise, with over two-third unaware of the link between cancer and obesity, according to CTV News. More recently, in the U.K., 49 percent of the public reported not being sure whether poor eating habits could increase the likelihood of cancer.
The Western Lifestyle
The “tidal wave” of cancer will affect poor and rich countries alike, though in different ways, according to the WHO report.
Poorer and less developed countries will likely be hit the hardest, especially by those cancers that grow by way of infection, such as cervical cancer. Prevention in those countries must be tailored around screenings, immunizations, and education.
However, cancer prevention is a problem in affluent countries, as well: wealth has actually led to higher consumption of processed foods, sedentary lifestyles, and alcohol abuse, which in turn is leading to poorer health than might be assumed based on the available spending money and medical technology.
Researchers and scientists are particularly concerned that the Western world is “exporting” that lifestyle, placing the double burden on less developed countries to deal with both infectious cancers and those caused by lifestyle choices and diet.
Diet as Prevention
In many ways, the tips for cancer prevention are similar to those for disease prevention across the board: eat your fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Get enough fiber and don’t load up on the salt. The WHO report emphasized this type of balanced diet as a means of staving off cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends the following guidelines for a cancer preventative diet:
- Choose foods and drinks in smaller amounts by reading labels, eating small portions of high-calorie foods, and limiting your intake of sugary foods.
- Limit the amount of processed meat and red meat in your diet, opting for fish, lean meat, or beans instead.
- Eat at least 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day, and limit your use of dressings or sauce on those.
- Instead of processed grains, choose whole grain pasta, bread, and cereal, and don’t eat too many foods high in refined carbs, like pastries and candy.
Plant foods in particular seem to protect us against cancer, according to WebMD. The phytochemicals and antioxidants tend “protect and repair” DNA, and some antioxidants even control how cancer cells spread or grow. Foods high in fiber—like many vegetables—also protect against colon cancer, in particular.
Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet for cancer prevention. However, a little effort can go a long way, so it’s worth assessing your diet and lifestyle to ensure that you’re giving yourself and your family the best chance at long, healthy lives.