Fighting Cancer – One Plateful at a Time

August 6, 2010 in Antioxidants, Blog Recipes, Diabetic Menu Item, Mediterranean, Nutrition, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

Sometimes when cancer is discussed feelings of avoidance wash over me; negative thoughts for which there are no easy answers and so many unknowns. But if I wait a few moments, I realize that there are, of course, steps that can be taken to reduce our risk – stop smoking, manage our sun exposure, and so on; but today I want to discuss how your diet fits into a goal of ‘cancer risk reduction.’ Before you read on I should warn you that there is no single food that can do the job. It appears that the right proportions and combination of foods may make a difference – it appears to be worth your effort to pay attention to your food choices. In addition, new research is being published every day – we are making progress (note below the significant research just published this week on August 1, 2010).

The following are hints for cancer risk reduction as related to eating style:

  • Skip the processed meats like hot dogs, salami, bologna, ham, and bacon. Processed meat is not only linked to colorectal and stomach cancer but also to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Alcohol consumption is linked to mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, kidney, breast, and possibly the colon and rectum. The American Cancer society says that even the suggested daily limit of 2 drinks a day if you’re a man or one drink, if you’re a woman increases risk. If you are over 65 years old, regardless of gender, alcohol may increase your risk of cancer.
  • Skip the sugar – Empty calorie sugar (call it by whatever name you like – table sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, agave, and molasses) displaces other nutrients that protect against cancer. I’d advise to stay under the total calories from sweetener that The American Heart Association has recommended; 100 calories for women and 150 for men.
  • Frying, grilling and broiling meats at high temperatures can cause chemicals to form that may increase cancer risk. Stewing, braising, sautéing or steaming are good ways to avoid creating those chemicals.
  • The nice thing about berries in modern life is that berries have become a year-round option; if they are not presently being harvested in your area you can buy the frozen ones. All berries are great for reducing cancer risk. Researchers have discovered a phytonutrient specifically in strawberries and raspberries called ellagic acid that slows the growth of cancer cells.
  • Strive to make at least 2/3 of your intake plant-based foods. The easiest place to start is at mealtime; look at your plate and strive to make the animal-based products only 1/4 or at most 1/3 of the plate.

The American Institute for Cancer Research, whose goal is “Changing lives to save lives,” is promoting The New American Plate. Essentially their goal is to help people look at the proportion of foods on the plate. They suggest that 2/3 (or more) of the food on your plate be vegetables, fruits, whole grains or beans; and 1/3 (or less) be animal protein like milk, eggs, meat, fish, and poultry. In addition, they have suggestions for portion size.  I like their chart because it has a column that tells what it looks like (baseball, golf ball, deck of cards 9 volt batteries). I also admire their goals in educating people to make changes gradually. They are not advocating a crash course in decreasing cancer risk; they are advocating gradual changes and can be sustained. The other aspect of their program that I strongly agree with is that their program is just another way of moving toward the Mediterranean-style of eating, that we write about so frequently.

  • There’s something in legumes (beans, peas, peanuts – nice long list) in general, that protects our body’s cells from damage that can lead to cancer. Peanuts aren’t on the list, but they are legumes – not really nuts. I don’t know if the science is there yet, to tell us exactly what it is; but maybe it’s the folate (see more below on folate.) I’m planning to write about legumes soon, because I’ve finally developed some habits that have increased our intake of legumes. It took me quite a while, but maybe it can save you some effort.
  • Cumin and turmeric are ingredients frequently in curry – cancer cells (esophageal and intestinal) seem to be destroyed by curry. If you need a reason, in addition to the wonderful taste of a good curry, this is it.
  • Dark green leafy vegetables have been known for many decades to be a nutritional powerhouse. Don’t forget Dr. Ancel Keys’ quote about the Mediterranean-style of eating; “No main meal in the Mediterranean countries is replete without lots of verdure (greens).” Again all the answers are not in on exactly what is in greens (lettuce, mustard greens, kale, chicory, endive, leek, spinach, chard ….. see a list for ideas). Greens are loaded with fiber, and hundreds of carotenoids, and again – folate. Greens have been linked to reduced risk of mouth, larynx, pancreas, lung, and skin and stomach cancers.
  • Cruciferous vegetables include common vegetables and some not so common ones. You don’t need to have broccoli and cauliflower every day; though they are delicious. Why not try some of the less common cruciferous vegetables and decrease your risk of colon, breast, lung and cervical cancer at the same time?
  • Tomatoes have been on the cancer prevention list for a long time. Tomatoes are great when eaten fresh, but when they are processed into sauce and paste their cancer-fighting potential seems to be increased. Is it that there is more of the phytonutrients in the paste or sauce because you eat so much more in a bite, or is it that the cooking of the tomato releases or activates the cancer-fighting potential? I don’t know.
  • All colorful fruits and vegetables are good choices to reduce the risk of cancer. They work in two ways: first, they are less calorically dense than other foods and help maintain a lower weight (overweight and obesity are risk factors for some cancers). A second possible mechanism is that the colors contain phytonutrients that reduce cancer risk.
  • Don’t try to get the thousands of nutrients that are contained in a variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables in a supplement or even ten supplements. It’s been shown more than once that taking supplements sometimes even increases the risk of cancer. Beta-carotene and folate are two great examples. Enjoy a variety of grains, fruits and vegetables and skip the risk of supplements.
  • Folate is likely one of the most interesting nutrients as related to cancer; but that fact is a little tricky. Folate is found naturally in whole wheat, eggs, legumes, sunflower seeds, leafy greens, asparagus, oranges, berries, melons and many other fresh whole foods – these foods are linked to cancer risk reduction.

Since 1998, the number of birth defects like spina bifida and childhood cancer has dropped by about 19 percent. Since that very same year, 1998, white flour and white rice have been fortified with folic acid, a synthetic form of the B vitamin folate. Unfortunately, women past the years of having children and men of any age may be increasing their risk of cancer. I say unfortunately, because it appears that the extra folic acid that is used in fortification might increase the odds of developing cancer. David Smith, PhD, and professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford in England, says; “The more we learn about folic acid, the more it’s clear that giving it to everyone has very real risks.” The researchers believe that an initial folate deficiency may promote the beginning stages of carcinogenesis; then high dose folic acid may enhance the growth of the cancer cells. The entire Oxford study is posted on Journal of the American Medical Association’s (JAMA) website. Dr. David Smith complains that it’s easy to overdose on folic acid – it’s all around us; slipped into cereal, bread, snack/energy bars, and supplements.

In Chile where folic acid fortification was introduced in 2000, the rates of colon cancer more than doubled. Joel B. Mason, MD, director of the Vitamins and Carcinogenesis laboratory at the Tufts University School of Medicine, has studied the same phenomenon in the US and Canada, following the fortification of grains with folic acid. Dr. Mason says that, “It’s a critical enough issue that it can’t be ignored.”

A study conducted in Norway (which doesn’t fortify foods with folic acid) found that when foods were fortified with 800 micrograms of folic acid (plus B12 and B6) daily for more than 3 years, it raised the risk of developing lung cancer by 21 percent.

In another study, in which the men took either a placebo or folic acid, those consuming 1,000 micrograms of folic acid daily had more than twice the risk of prostate cancer.

It has recently been discovered that the liver has limited ability to metabolize folic acid into folate. Unfortunately, excess folic acid continues to circulate in the blood. David Smith says, “Unlike folate, folic acid isn’t found in nature, so we don’t know the effect of the excess.”

Let’s settle on the natural folate found in whole grains, leafy greens, legumes, and citrus fruits; that way you won’t have the folic acid risk.

It’s interesting to me that whole wheat, a good source of folate, is reduced to 59% of it’s original amount of folate in the refining to white flour process; then the fortification is made to bring it up to 416%. It almost seems like a red flag to me – WARNING! If nature safely provides a certain amount for millennia, why do we want to fortify to 416%? It is a great example of the erroneous thinking, “If a little is good, more is better.”

It is also interesting to me that the original rise in spina bifida birth defects (neural tube defects) was related to processed foods, fast foods and junk foods that are so commonly consumed.

  • Hot off the press: On August 1, 2010, the journal Cancer Research published a stunning article. Puzzled about the increase in pancreatic cancer, these researchers  found that pancreatic tumor cells use fructose to divide and proliferate. If this is not the nail in the coffin for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), I don’t know what it will take. Anthony P. Heaney at the UCLA School of Medicine discovered that tumor cells fed both glucose and fructose (the two sugars in sucrose and HFCS) used the sugars in different ways.

Dr. Heaney said that, “These findings show that cancer cells can readily metabolize fructose to increase proliferation.” Tumor cells thrive on sugar, but they used the fructose to proliferate. This study shows that the metabolism of fructose and glucose are quite different. One more reason to get away from HFCS. This food-like substance is in a great majority of processed foods. Some food processors are getting smart and taking it out of their products. The soft drink industry is in the process of making the change.

  • Of course, if you go back to the top of this list, you will discover that all these points are consistent with the Mediterranean-style of eating that we write about so frequently in this blog.

It is still interesting to me that what helps to reduce the incidence of cancer also helps to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Is it possible that our bodies were not designed to live on nutritionally impoverished processed foods loaded with new substances previously unknown to the human body? By turning away from such foods and turning toward foods such as Mary Ireland’s Beets, Carrots and Tops we can reduce cancer risk one healthy plate at a time.