Plenty of medical conditions can be traced to what we choose to put into our bodies. The consumption of food, aside from being instrumental to our continued survival, also plays strong role in determining our health. After all, who do you think will be more likely to have their blood pressure measuring within the normal range: someone who eats 2,000 calories worth of pizza and fries on a daily basis or someone who opts for wholesome food instead? This of course has led to the rhetoric of how food affects the scourge of modern health – cancer. Can good nutrition actually prevent cancer?
Cancer is caused by abnormal cell growth in the body that spreads to other parts if left untreated, and while poor nutrition can increase the risk of cancer, the reverse cannot be said to outright prevent it. There are a myriad of factors involved in the genetic changes that precede the development of cancer; to pin it all on what we eat would be a gross oversimplification of the relationship shared between nutrition and cell health.
Lifestyle factors such as obesity, lack of physical activity, excessive alcohol consumption and poor diet account for approximately 10 percent of cancer deaths. Nutrition alone is evidently not the biggest determinant of cancer development.
“When we talk about cancer prevention in the general population, there aren’t any set rules to follow,” says Dr Lavina Bharwani, medical director at John Hopkins Singapore. “What I would advocate is a healthy diet which is based on the lifestyle guidelines laid out by the American Heart Association. To me, it’s not only about the prevention of cancer, but also the prevention of everything else like stroke and coronary heart disease.”
“The idea is to ensure that your blood sugar levels are appropriate, physical activity is sufficient, alcohol consumption is limited and no smoking whatsoever. It all comes together.”
Unfortunately, cancer is largely an age-related disease. As such, there’s only so much we can do to “bulletproof” ourselves against cancer. As dismal as it might sound, it pretty much boils down to tipping the odds in our favour.
According to Dr Jens Samol, a senior consultant in oncology at John Hopkins Singapore, the importance of good nutrition should nevertheless continue to be taken seriously. “We all eat every day – three times, maybe four with a little in between meals. Without that, we can’t live. So on that point, nutrition is very important,” he says. “What to eat is ultimately a lifestyle choice; the trick is in knowing what to avoid.”
“While certain food can influence change, it’s not to the point where we can say, ‘this will prevent cancer’.”
Even the highly controversial Alkaline Diet, which recently had its anti-cancer claims debunked, fails to stand against this truth. “There is no proof that keeping your body in an alkaline state helpful in preventing cancer,” says Dr Samol. “The body will keep its pH level exactly at 7.4; there are many mechanisms behind this process which cannot be changed by what we eat or drink. It makes no real difference at a cellular level.”
“You can’t simplify it like that; the body’s too complex,” adds Dr Bharwani. “No current cancer treatment, much less the Alkaline Diet, carries a 100 percent guarantee of working at a cellular level. To take something so simple and to use it to address such a complex condition just won’t work.”
Of course, things change when it concerns people who suffer from a cancerous condition. Different cancers require different approaches and clinical dieticians are brought into play to ensure that specific nutritional guidelines are adhered to in order to maximise the effectiveness of the treatments. But when it comes to general populations, there’s no point in taking anti-oxidant pills by the bucket. As long as you’re doing right by your body, you’re doing the best you can!
(2014) “Cancer Fact sheet No. 297”, World Health Organisation. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs297/en/