Earlier this week, I did a nutrition talk at Wellspring Calgary, and one of the attendees took the time after the presentation to tell me that she appreciated that I focused on what foods to eat versus what not to eat. And it’s true – there’s always someone out there telling us to cut out gluten, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, you name it, that if we listened to it all, we’d probably just be left with water (no fluoride, please?)
Last week, the nutrition “bad guy” was processed meat and red meat. The World Health Organization and International Agency for Research on Cancer released their latest monograph, which concluded that there is “probable evidence” that red meat, and “sufficient evidence” that processed meat can cause cancer. Of course, there was widespread backlash, and in a follow-up statement the WHO and IARC stated that bacon and beef are a-ok, just in moderation.
So, what to do in response to what seems like constantly shifting science that says something is bad one day, but OK the next?
1. Understand that there will never be a single food that causes or cures cancer.
Like any chronic disease, there are many factors that play into whether or not a person develops cancer, so it’s impossible to pinpoint a specific cause. With that in mind, that’s why it’s difficult to study whether foods can increase or decrease a person’s risk. We eat so many different foods and engage in so many different activities – now add to that factors that are out of our control, like genetics and age, that it makes it really hard to tease out the effect of one specific food. So, don’t hold your breath for a silver bullet, nor panic about every little thing that you may (or may not) eat.
2. Adopt a cancer preventing lifestyle.
While there isn’t a single food that can cause or cure cancer, your diet and lifestyle as a whole can probably nudge you in one direction or another. The World Cancer Research Fund actually has boiled down their research to nine straightforward recommendations, though admittedly a few of them include the words “limit” or “avoid” ?So, in keeping with the theme of focusing on the positive…
2a. Choose plant-based foods most often, ideally minimally-processed.
Of all the foods and nutrients in the WCRF Continuous Update Project Matrix, the only one that causes “convincing decreased risk” of cancer (specifically, colorectal) is fibre. And where does fibre come from? Plants. Additionally, all fruits and non-starchy vegetables are linked to a “probable decreased risk” of oropharyngeal and upper gastrointestinal cancers.
What about the “minimally processed” part? While there aren’t specific studies that compare say, fresh fruit to a fruit cup, compared to whole foods, processed foods may be stripped of many of the nutrients present in the original food, and/or have added fat, sugar or salt.
Worried that plants are all carbs and no protein? Plant sources of protein include legumes, nuts and seeds, and I just said to choose plant-based foods “most often”, so of course, meat, seafood, eggs and dairy can still be part of a balanced diet!
3. Cover all your bases – choose variety.
There are lots of different compounds in different foods, and I’m sure there are many that haven’t been extracted and studied, let alone looking at how they work together in a meal or a person’s diet. So, instead of trying to overload on a single “superfood”, I always encourage variety, so that you can make sure all your bases are covered. Variety can apply to cooking methods as well; enjoying foods raw versus boiled versus roasted, etc, can have a role to play in what compounds are preserved, destroyed or even boosted – lycopene, a compound found in tomatoes which is linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer, is actually made more available when a food is cooked. For example, ½ cup of tomato sauce has about seven times the amount of lycopene as a raw tomato!
4. Get your move on.
Nowadays, it seems like people exercise with the goal of burning calories that they forget that any movement can have health benefits. When it comes to cancer, physical activity is associated with “convincing decreased risk” of colon cancer, and “probable decreased risk” of breast and ovarian cancers. If you don’t like slogging it out at the gym, you don’t have to! Take the time to find something you enjoy, whether it’s taking a group class, hitting the pool or simply going for a leisurely stroll outside.