Cancer. Just the word sends a chilling and daunting feeling into any conversation. If you’ve ever been diagnosed, or know someone close who has received a cancer diagnosis, your life changes in an instant. The truth is there is still so much we don’t know about cancer. How does it start? Who is at a higher risk, and of which cancer types? How much of cancer is driven by genetic mutations vs. environmental issues? Can we reduce our risk of cancer through changes in dietary lifestyle?
Societally, we have made great medical strides in treating a wide range of cancers, and through a mix of surgical, pharmaceutical, biological, dietary and holistic treatments, cancer does not have to be the final chapter in one’s life. While we do have treatments that have progressed substantially in the last 40 years, our first goal should be to reduce our risk of cancer by shifting the odds in our favor.
Leading Causes of Cancer
So, what do we know? Our environment – meaning external factors, behaviors and influencers – is a major contributor to cancer. In fact, the three leading causes of cancer are:
- Tobacco Use
Tobacco use is linked to at least 40% of cancer diagnoses, driven by toxins generated by the plethora of tobacco forms & ingredients. Mouth, throat, voice box, lung and esophagus cancers are only a short list of the types of cancers that can be driven by tobacco use.
Radiation really falls into two large buckets: radiation exposure and sun exposure. The distinction is radiation exposure is typically more associated with mechanical or man-made environments or laboratories, whereas sun exposure is tied to the constant and over-exposure of radiation from solar rays. Cancer from either type of radiation is associated with skin, eyes, lungs, bone and reproductive organs, just to name a few.
Obesity can be linked to cancer, more than you probably think. In fact, the CDC says that 40% of cancers are linked to obesity, including meningioma (cancer in the brain & spinal cord tissue), liver, stomach, pancreas, gall bladder and colon. Obesity is also a primary contributor to a range of chronic diseases, driven by the creation of chronically high levels of inflammation.
Understanding How Diet Can Contribute to Cancer
Researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology have recently been able to prove the link between a high fat diet and nitric oxide levels, a naturally occurring signaling molecule related to inflammation & cancer.
While it is clear cancer is a complicated disease, the researchers highlight how cancer thrives in an ecosystem vs. just a random compilation of cells. For cancer to thrive, it needs an environment that enables cell damage, cell mutation and cell reproduction. A body, for example, that has a high level of inflammation can create such an environment and enable cancer to multiply and thrive.
Even though the link between nitric oxide levels and inflammation, and between inflammation and cancer, are clear, understanding whether there is a link between diet and cancer required development of scientific probes. Using these probes, and conducting tests on mice comparing a high fat diet (60%+) vs a low-fat diet (10%), the research demonstrated a higher nitric acid measurement in the high fat diet mice. While this is directional, and certainly an early stage of development, it could better enable us to understand how diet impacts cancer in the near future.
Diet & Processed Foods
We know diet can significantly cause and contribute to chronic inflammation, as discussed in a previous blog post. The usual suspects named as major contributors are “high fat” and “processed foods.”
- Does that mean all fat is bad and poses a risk for cancer? Not at all! In fact, fat is incredibly important to our metabolic health, growth, development and longevity. But not all fats are created equal, and we are consuming way too many polyunsaturated fats through seed oils that are highly inflammatory and of low energy quality.
- What are processed foods? At a high level, processed foods are not real or whole foods, but foods usually found in a box or a can that are loaded with sugar, fillers, poor quality fats in the form of seed oils, nitrates, and a host of ingredients foreign to the human body. In the American diet, for example, some of the most popular processed foods include frozen pizza, soda, cereal, fast foods, sweets, salty snacks, canned soup, and sugar-laden beverages. These foods all share a commonality…they are high in carbohydrates/sugars, and most are high in both poor-quality fats AND carbohydrates/sugars.
So, how does all this contribute to inflammation and likely link diet to cancer?
- High carbohydrate diets drive insulin secretion, which shuts down fat metabolism and encourages fat storage. A diet that is high in both carbohydrates AND fat will increase the amount of fat stored, and when the bulk of that dietary fat is highly inflammatory, chronic disease and inflammation begin to consume the body.
- Consistently eating a high carbohydrate and high fat diet will cause excess fat to be stored, creating obesity and insulin resistance, which is the precursor to Type 2 Diabetes. Carbohydrates are the macronutrients that drive the highest insulin response, in part, because the body recognizes too much sugar in the blood is toxic. How much is too much? Consider a 150-pound human has, under normal metabolic circumstances, approximately 4 grams of sugar circulating in the blood, or the equivalent of 1 teaspoon! The term used for excess sugar in the blood is called “glucose toxicity.”
- This diet will also cause leptin resistance, which means the brain does not get a hormonal signal that the body is “full”, thus remaining in a constant state of hunger even though the body has more than enough stored energy.
- The foods mentioned above are typically made with highly inflammatory seed oils. So, not only is inflammation caused by the carbohydrates/sugars, but the seed oils enhance the chronic inflammation. It’s a dietary double whammy.
- A body in chronic inflammation creates an environment where (1) cells are being damaged or destroyed; (2) the immune system is constantly activated and overworked to try and repair the inflammatory damage.
- Over time, this environment creates an ecosystem where cancer cells can survive and thrive, and the immune system is weakened to deal with the threat.
Reducing the Risk
As already mentioned, cancer is a very complicated disease, and to say “one thing” is the absolute and only root cause is simply erroneous. What we have to consider, though, is how to reduce our risk, which means eliminating things like tobacco use, ensuring we stay protected from the sun and other radiation risks, and addressing our diets to keep inflammation low. Changing our lifestyle to include a diet rich in whole foods, quality fats & protein, with limited carbohydrates/sugars is an important step. Secondarily, we need to stay active with mental and physical activity to help keep our mind sharp, body strong and our immune system effective. We want to create an environment where cancer does not have an ecosystem to thrive. Does that mean if we do all this we won’t get cancer? Of course not. But, there are many steps we can take to create an environment where cancer has a tougher time thriving, and making smart dietary choices are a critical step toward shifting the odds in our favor.