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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

The link between diet and cancer (part 1)

While I do believe that there is a significant link between diet and cancer, I think that it is important to first understand the limitations of this kind of thinking. A proper approach to diet, exercise, sleep, screenings, and other behavioral factors can certainly lower your cancer risk, but it will never be zero. On a basic level, cancer is the result of an unfortunate combination of DNA mutations, and these mutations cannot be avoided entirely.


Additionally, it is essential to understand that lifestyle measures are not a replacement for medical treatment. There are many sad stories of people who, when diagnosed with cancer, chose not to follow medical recommendations, instead hoping that a good diet and overall healthier lifestyle would put their cancer into remission. These stories almost uniformly end with progression of the cancer and ultimately, death. Eating healthy and exercising can improve one’s prognosis when combined with medical treatments, but they are not replacements for the treatment recommended by an oncologist.


With those important disclaimers out of the way, let’s talk about how your diet can impact your risk of developing cancer. As previously mentioned, cancer essentially begins as an unfortunate combination of mutations in a single cell. This cell divides rapidly and without proper control, forming a population of cells that attempt to outcompete the normal, healthy cells in our body for space and resources. These cancerous cells can continue to grow and spread, eventually disrupting essential organ functions and causing death. When the population of cancer cells is still very small, however, there can be better outcomes. We now know that our immune system is constantly battling (and hopefully eradicating) tiny populations of cancer cells. Additionally, the environment the cancer cells face is extremely important in determining whether they will die off, continue to grow, or remain relatively stable.


This leaves two ways in which diet can impact cancer development. The first, which we’ll cover in this post, is the initiation of the cancer via mutations. As I mentioned before, mutations are an inevitable part of life. That being said, you want to limit your intake of carcinogens, or chemicals that can trigger mutations in your DNA. There are extensive lists available, but they’re quite complex and constantly evolving. We will never know every possible carcinogenic molecule, nor can we easily determine how much of these molecules are in the food we eat.


There are some general principles that can be followed, however, to limit your dietary carcinogen intake. For example, processed foods and meats in particular should be limited. The preservation and preparation process often includes carcinogenic compounds. Think of bacon, salami, and sausage as examples of highly processed meats. Cooking meat at extremely high temperatures or smoking meat can also lead to the production of cancer-causing molecules. Additionally, alcohol consumption leads to the formation of acetaldehyde, a carcinogen, in the body.


The idea here isn’t that you can never have a slice of bacon or a beer, but that these things should be enjoyed in moderation. As we emphasize repeatedly, eating a diet composed of whole, naturally-occurring foods will help mitigate your risk of various diseases, cancer included. Some of these foods (such as broccoli, carrots, and berries) could even be protective against cell damage and cancer initiation, but the data on this is less clear. Antioxidant consumption, which has previously been thought to lower cancer risk, is now controversial. As we await further evidence, it is recommended to consume a moderate amount of antioxidant-containing whole foods. Antioxidant supplements are not advised for lowering cancer risk in the general population.


Moving on from cancer initiation, the second (and more interesting, in my opinion) role of your diet is in modifying the environment cancer cells face as they attempt to survive and grow. Stay tuned for Part 2 on this topic where we will discuss the cancer microenvironment in detail, and how you can potentially alter your diet to make it more difficult for a cancer to grow and spread in your body.


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