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Reducing Cancer Risk through Diet

It is too common to be fatalistic about such a dreadful disease as cancer, which so often seems to ruthlessly strike out of the blue. Therefore, we might be forgiven for believing that it is all due to bad luck or wrong genes or some other factor outside of our control. And often it is. But one recently published report concluded that circa 43% of all cancer cases in the UK are due to lifestyle and environmental factors. But let’s have a look at these findings from a different angle. Nearly half of all cancer cases can be attributed to factors that are potentially within our control. This is quite an optimistic message which says that in terms of cancer prevention we have considerable scope to take control of key risk factors.

As expected, the report showed that smoking was topping the list of major risk factors as it remains to be the single biggest risk factor for both men and women, responsible for nearly 20% of all cancer cases in the UK. Alongside smoking were the other obvious suspects such as obesity, unhealthy diet and heavy alcohol consumption, which together with smoking, accounted for a staggering 34% of cancers in the UK. It does not need mentioning that by lowering these major risk factors for cancer, the risk of the other serious chronic diseases of our era, such as heart disease and diabetes, would also be reduced.

But, what else could health conscious individuals do to decrease their risk of cancer even further, other than quitting smoking, drinking sensibly, eating a good diet and maintaining a healthy weight? When it comes to diet, the report mentions four key factors: vegetables / fruits and fibre as cancer protective and salt and red / preserved meat as causing cancer. We do not wish to question the wisdom of this. Eating your fair share of vegetables, fruits and a fibre-rich diet, whilst reducing the consumption of sausages, bacon, ham and salty snacks is sensible. But there are also some other foods that anyone serious about lowering their cancer risk might want to think about.

First, it is the key trace mineral, selenium, which strengthens our body’s own defence systems against cancer and it is chronically in short supply in our diet. For a typical person consuming Western diet, a modest selenium supplementation (around 60mcg per day) can help maximise the body’s in-built cancer defences that depend on adequate supply of selenium. Then there is the ‘sunshine vitamin D’ that most people in the UK are deficient in. Several scientific studies confirmed that insufficient supply of vitamin D is associated with increased risk of common cancers, such as bowel cancer. Increasing our vitamin D intake, mainly in the dark winter months through a sensibly dosed vitamin D supplement, could improve our chances of preventing certain types of cancer.

Then, rather than just providing a simple recommendation for eating five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, which by the way is a good start for most people, we should be more precise in defining those fruits and vegetables which appear most likely to offer cancer-protective benefits. To our knowledge some of the best bets include cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and kale, allium vegetables such as garlic and onions, and cooked tomatoes / tomato products rich in lycopene, which seem to be amongst the vegetables with biggest cancer-fighting potential. In addition, following a low glycemic index (GI) diet rather than high GI style diet may also be a wise decision.

It goes without saying that getting the basics right is the first crucial step in improving your chances of living a healthy, long life. However, when it comes to cancer prevention, going the extra mile and ensuring optimal levels of key cancer-protective nutrients could tip the scales even more firmly in your favour.

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