Food for thought: relationship between nutrition and cancer prevention

LAHORE   -  Our organs and our cells set course of our body functions. We mistreat them in anyway and we will pay for it if not in the short term then definitely the long term. We need to be kind to our cells and respect them because as we all know “we are what we eat”. Nutrition has long been suspected to play an important role in cancer etiology, both in the develop­ment and prevention of cancer. This ar­ticle is specifically directed towards the role of nutrients in cancer prevention. The biologic properties of nutrients make them major candidates to help in cancer prevention. Indeed, early epidemiologic cancer studies seemed to confirm the relevance of diet with cancer. Diet is one of the major causes of premature death and disability in developed and under­developed countries and contributes to the burden of cancers. Current treatment options for cancer include surgery, radio­therapy, and chemotherapy, which im­pose a large financial burden not only on health care systems but also on patients themselves. Therefore, nutritional inter­ventions could serve as a cost-effective and safe aid to standard medical treat­ments. Numerous observational studies have been conducted over the past de­cades to explore the role of diet in can­cer development and prevention. Many of them support an association between diet and cancer. These studies indicated, for example, an increase in the risk of breast cancer associated with fat intake, and a decrease in colorectal cancers asso­ciated with a high consumption of fruits, vegetables and dietary fiber. Researchers found that dietary antioxidants, including beta-carotene, can reduce the risk of sev­eral cancers. After a comprehensive re­view of the available evidence, the World Cancer Research Fund concluded in 1997 that “it is now established that cancer is principally caused by environmental fac­tors, of which the most important are tobacco; diet and factors related to diet, including body mass and physical activ­ity; and exposures in the workplace and elsewhere.”


Consume a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of foods from all food groups, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. A diverse diet ensures we get a wide range of nutrients that can help support the im­mune system and overall health. Having too much sugary food and drink, or food high in calories (including fast food), can make it easier to gain weight and obesity is a cause of different types of cancer. Hav­ing a healthy diet helps you keep a healthy weight, or lose weight, which can reduce the risk of cancer.


Include foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries, citrus fruits, leafy greens, and nuts. Antioxidants can help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, po­tentially reducing the risk of cancer. Anti­oxidants are protective molecules natu­rally found in our bodies and in the foods we eat. Examples of some important an­tioxidants are Vitamin A, C, E, Lycopene, Polyphenols, including flavonoids, Sele­nium and Carotenoids, etc. Their role is to protect our bodies from the damage that free radicals can cause, which are molecules that lead to oxidative stress and potentially inflammation and cellular damage. 


Opt for high-fiber foods like whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. Dietary fiber promotes digestive health and may lower the risk of colorectal cancer. A large body of the literature suggests that eating a variety of foods containing high fiber has a protective effect against colon can­cer. Evidence also shows that a high fiber-containing diet may be protective against breast, ovary, endometrial, and gastroin­testinal cancer.


Reduce intake of red (mutton, lamb and beef) and processed meat (deli meats, hot dogs). High consumption of these meats has been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, particularly colorectal cancer. To mitigate this risk, it is advisable to replace red and processed meats in one’s diet with healthier alterna­tives. Lean sources of protein like poultry, fish, legumes, and plant-based protein sources, such as lentils, chick pea, oats and legumes can be excellent choices.


Choose sources of healthy fats, such as avocados, olive oil, and fatty fish like salmon. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, have anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce the risk of cancer. Literature has repeatedly shown the advantage of Ome­ga-3 in cancer prevention. Omega-3 fatty acids can enhance immune system func­tion, improving the body’s ability to rec­ognize and destroy cancer cells. They also support the production of anti-inflamma­tory molecules, which can help modulate the immune response. Omega-3 fatty ac­ids have been shown to play a role in DNA repair mechanisms. 


Vitamin D deficiency is currently af­flicting South Asia and has developed into an endemic condition in this region. It is extremely concerning that Pakistan has the highest incidence of adult vitamin D deficiency in South Asia at 73%. When it comes to cancer prevention, many stud­ies suggest that vitamin D may play a role in reducing the risk of breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers. We as a nation, need to ensure we have adequate vita­min D levels. Sunlight, fortified foods, and supplements can help maintain appropri­ate levels. Scientifically, Vitamin D inhibits the formation of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow, restricting their blood supply.


Low calcium levels have been associat­ed with an increased risk of cancer devel­opment. Inadequate calcium intake can disturb several cellular mechanisms, po­tentially leading to uncontrolled cell divi­sion and the promotion of cancer growth. However, the relationship between calci­um levels and cancer risk is complex and influenced by various factors, including dietary habits and individual susceptibil­ity. While maintaining adequate calcium intake is important for overall health, it’s just one piece of the puzzle in cancer prevention. Individuals shouldconsume enough calcium through dairy or fortified sources, not only to support bone health but as conscious effort to prevent cancer since low calcium intake may contribute to the development of gastric, pancreatic and ovarian cancer and to some extent endometrial and lung cancer.


Sugary beverages have been associated with an increased risk of cancer develop­ment. Consuming these drinks regularly can contribute to weight gain and obe­sity, which are established risk factors for various types of cancer, including breast, colon, and pancreatic cancer. Addition­ally, the high sugar content in these bev­erages can lead to elevated insulin levels and inflammation, both of which have been linked to cancer development and progression. Limiting the consumption of sugary beverages is advisable as part of a healthy lifestyle to reduce the risk of can­cer and promote overall well-being.


Writer Shazia Asim is a professor of pharmacology in a private medical col­lege in Lahore. She has written several ar­ticles in daily newspapers about different aspects of nutrition.

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