The connection between the food we eat and cancer is anything but new. Scientists have long noticed the association with eating meat and cancer. For instance, Scientific American stated all the way back in January 1892 that “cancer is most frequent among those branches of the human race where carnivorous habits prevail.”
Studies have shown again and again that those following a plant-based diet have a lower risk of several kinds of cancer such as stomach, colon, prostate and pancreatic. Even smokers (and of course smoking is not recommended) can cut their risk of lung cancer by half if they eat a plant-food rich diet. Now, in the 21st century, scientists are discovering many of the ways plant foods help protect us from getting cancer.
Let’s start with funny sounding substances called phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are not vitamins or minerals, but they are just as important to your long term health, especially when it comes to avoiding cancer. Phytonutrients are only found in plant foods, and they’re one of the reasons why vegetarians, and especially vegans, have a lower risk of many cancers. These hard working gifts of nature help prevent cancer in five ways:
- They detoxify many carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) and keep them from damaging the DNA in your cells.
- If the DNA does become damaged, then they help in the repair process.
- For cells that have become precancerous, they keep them from growing.
- They also keep precancerous cells from becoming fully malignant.
- Should any cells become malignant, they then try to inhibit the cancer from spreading.
So consuming a wide variety of different fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts every day gives your body the best chance to keep from getting cancer.
Let’s not forget about fiber. Fiber keep us regular so that any ingested carcinogens such as PCBs or dioxins are quickly eliminated. Fiber also promotes a healthier profile of bacteria in our intestines. These good bacteria naturally fight inflammation in the body, and inflammation is a contributing factor to a long list of different cancers. So we see that dietary fiber is another way plant foods help us avoid getting cancer, by reducing our exposure to toxins, and our general level of inflammation.
Of course, avoiding meat and other animal products keeps us from being exposed to the carcinogens they contain. That meat can cause cancer is finally being recognized by medical authorities. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently announced what many already knew: processed meat causes colon cancer. Processed meat is any meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding chemical preservatives. This puts most of the cold cuts at the supermarket deli counter — such as ham, pastrami, turkey and bologna — into this category, along with bacon, sausage, hot dogs, corned beef, pepperoni, beef jerky, as well as canned meat, like Spam.
WHO says the evidence for processed meat is “strong,” classifying it as “carcinogenic to humans.” The evidence for ordinary red meat was almost as high. They also found evidence linking meat to other cancers including cancer of the stomach, pancreas and prostate.
The WHO report identified several kinds of carcinogens found in meat that are produced either by processing, such as nitrates, or by cooking. Cooking meat produces a group of carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Numerous studies have linked these to a whole host of different cancers. Although the WHO didn’t focus on other meats such as poultry, it should be noted that chicken has even higher levels of these HCAs than beef does.
In addition to these, many scientists have found that carcinogenic chemicals used in agriculture, such as pesticides and herbicides, along with carcinogenic industrial pollutants such PCBs and dioxin, tend to concentrate greatly in the meat tissues of livestock, fish and also in dairy products that make their way onto our dinner plate.
While we’re grateful that the relationship between red and processed meat and cancer is finally being acknowledged publicly, we hope that it’s not too much longer before they also point out the risks of certain cancers from consuming other animal products such as poultry and fish too. In the meantime, research shows that a diet composed of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes and tree nuts gives you the best chance of avoiding many kinds of cancer. While you’re reducing your risk of cancer, the same diet will also reduce your risk of other diseases such as type II diabetes and heart disease.
To learn more about foods that fight cancer, our president, Amanda, will be giving a series of informative cooking classes, starting on Monday Oct 10th, 7pm at East Shore Unitarian Church. Make a reservation.
See professional level information on prostate cancer