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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

The link between diet and cancer (part 2)

In part 1 of this series (available here) I discussed the limitations of dietary influence on cancer, gave a brief overview of the cancer development process, and considered how the foods you eat can contribute to cancer initiation. While limiting the risk of cancer initiation is important, mutations are inevitable and the current thinking is that cancerous mutations are somewhat common. In the early stages, however, cancerous cells can be destroyed by the immune system or an unfavorable environment. This second part of our diet and cancer series will focus on what we know about the interaction of cancer cells with the body and how our dietary habits can ensure that this internal environment does not favor cancer survival and growth.


This is a complicated dynamic, but the traditional thought process has been that inflammation and growth signaling can encourage cancer development. It’s important to recognize that not all inflammation is bad, however. For example, resistance training induces a temporary inflammatory response that leads to muscle growth. To learn more about the nuance surrounding this topic, read our recent post on inflammation.


In general, chronic inflammation is what you want to avoid in order to mitigate the risk of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and various other diseases. Refined carbohydrates, sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meat, and trans fats are typically considered pro-inflammatory foods. Olive oil, avocados, nuts, fish, berries, leafy greens, and more have been found to be anti-inflammatory.


Inflammation is harmful when it comes to cancer because it can be thought of as your body’s “repair” state. In the normal, healthy process, immune cells grow and proliferate, travel to the site of infection or injury, and rebuild the damaged tissues. All of this requires growth signaling, which can incidentally encourage tumor progression. A crucial diet-related growth signal is the hormone insulin, which is secreted in response to food consumption (and particularly carbohydrate consumption). Insulin, like inflammation as a whole, is beneficial at times. You may be familiar with the key role insulin injections play in the management of type 1 diabetes. It also contributes to muscle growth, but normally retreats to very low levels within a short period of time.


The problem comes when insulin does not subside, and remains at high levels chronically. As with muscle growth, insulin produces a pro-growth state throughout the body. If the body is constantly in this pro-growth state, this is an ideal scenario for cancer cells. The term for this state is hyperinsulinemia, and it is generally found in type 2 diabetics and others who lack insulin sensitivity. Insulin resistance far precedes the onset of diabetes, so even those with seemingly normal blood sugar can be hyperinsulinemic. Our principles for healthy eating post describes strategies for avoiding insulin resistance and diabetes.


Again, the diet-cancer link remains a work in progress, and the impact diet can have on cancer development is certainly limited. That being said, there is strong evidence that keeping insulin and inflammation under control will lower your cancer risk. Keep in mind, however, that everything is a balance. If you try to permanently avoid a pro-growth state, you may evade cancer but you’ll end up with tissue breakdown and other problems instead.


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