If you’re ready to believe the sensational titles and overhype in mass media, miracle super foods that decrease the risk of cancer are discovered every other week.
Except miracles are just that: something that rarely happens, and many of these reported ‘proven’ food cures are based on flimsy findings, never again to be reproduced.
Nevertheless, health experts are unanimous about the effect our diet as a whole has on health, and on cancer risk. The World Health Organization estimates that 25 percent of death burden in developed countries is due to lifestyle – completely up to us – risk factors.
8 healthy habits
In 2007, a collaboration between the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) evaluated the evidence and produced consensus recommendations for reducing the risk of developing cancer and for promotion of general good health and wellbeing. The WCRF/AICR report is the largest study of its kind, and its conclusions are as definitive as the available evidence allows.
The report featured eight general diet and lifestyle recommendations for cancer prevention:
“1: Body Fatness: Be as Lean as Possible Within the Normal Range of Body Weight.” Maintaining a healthy weight throughout life may be one of the most important ways to protect against cancer, and being overweight or obese increases the risk of some cancers.
“2: Physical Activity: Be Physically Active as Part of Everyday Life.”
“3: Foods and Drinks That Promote Weight Gain: Limit the Consumption of Energy-Dense Foods and Avoid Sugary Drinks.” Sugary drinks were targeted specifically in the report: “Such beverages appear to exert little influence on total daily self-selected energy intakes and their habitual consumption can lead to rapid and sustained weight gain even in the face of restricted solid food intake”. Another recommendation under this heading is “Consume 'fast foods' sparingly, if at all.”
“4: Plant Foods: Eat Mostly Foods of Plant Origin.” Diets that are protective against cancer are characterized by large intake of foods of plant origin and, indeed, several cancers are responsive to increased intakes of plant-based foods.
“5: Animal Foods: Limit the Intake of Red Meat and Avoid Processed Meat.”
“6: Alcoholic Drinks: Limit Alcoholic Drinks.” (Men-to 2/day, women to 1/day).
“7: Preservation, Processing, Preparation: Limit Consumption of Salt and Avoid Moldy Cereal Grains and Pulses (Legumes).” Salt and salt-preserved foods probably contribute to stomach cancer risk, and foods contaminated with aflatoxins are a cause of liver cancer. Although salt is necessary for human health, typical levels of consumption are vastly excessive.
“8: Dietary Supplements: Aim to Meet Nutritional Needs Through Diet Alone.” Dietary supplements are not recommended for cancer prevention. According to the report the greatest danger associated with the use of dietary supplements is the possibility that consumption of supplements is serving as an alternate to good nutrition, and supplements are taken as “magic bullets” to compensate for cancer-friendly dietary and lifestyle practices.
So, not as easy as popping a supplement or drinking acai juice, but does this recipe for cancer reduction and longevity actually work?
Not a shortcut, but it will get you there
A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, including almost 400,000 people from 9 European countries, scored participants’ compliance with the 6 first WCRF/AICR recommendations (there was insufficient data to assess recommendations 7 and 8). Women were also assessed for another WCRF/AICR recommendation specific to women: Breastfeeding. The total possible score for a man was therefore 6, and for a woman 7. The group was followed for about 12 years, and during that time almost 24,000 people died, 48 percent of them from cancer.
People with the highest WCRF/AICR score (5-6 for men, 6-7 women) had almost 34 percent lower risk of dying than those that had the lowest scores (0-2 for men, 0-3 for women). Each additional point in the WCRF/AICR score was associated with a 1.2 year increase in life expectancy, and a higher score was associated with lower risk of death from cancer, cardiovascular disease and breathing problems. The recommendations regarding overweight and obesity, and eating plant food, were the most strongly associated with risk of dying.
We like things fast and now, and the WCRF/AICR recommendations aren’t a shortcut, but isn’t it nice to know that we do have some control over our heath trajectory?