Nutrition and Cancer

The dietary guidelines to lower cancer risk are:

  1. Reduce intake of dietary fat -- saturated and unsaturated -- from the current average of about 34 percent to a level of 30 percent of total calories.

  2. Increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereals.

  3. Consume salt-cured, smoked and charcoal-broiled foods only in moderation.

  4. Drink alcoholic beverages only in moderation.

These guidelines are not intended to overly restrict or eliminate any foods from your diet. They are meant to encourage you to consume a wide variety of foods. Choosing certain types of foods more often than others also is encouraged, as suggested below.

Guideline #1 - Reduce intake of dietary fat -- saturated and unsaturated -- from the current average of approximately 34 percent to a level of 30 percent of total calories.

Fat in the diet. Laboratory and epidemiologic data suggests that too much fat in the diet leads to an increased risk of a variety of cancers. The risk of these cancers appears to be higher when fat as a total percentage of calorie intake is increased. Americans consume an average of 34 percent of their calories as fat. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences recommends that people eat no more than 30 percent of their daily calories as fat.

Tips to reduce fat in your diet. Suggestions to cut down on the fat in your diet include:

  • trim skin and excessive fat from meat;

  • decrease consumption of fried foods;

  • use less spreads, salad dressings, and oils at the table;

  • eat smaller portions;

  • read food labels to determine the amount of fat and nutrients in a product; and

  • substitute low-fat foods such as plain low-fat yogurt, blender whipped low-fat cottage cheese or skim milk in dips, sauces and recipes.

Guideline #2 - Increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereals.

Specific nutrients and food constituents of fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereals may be anticancer substances when eaten at levels found in a varied diet. Some food constituents and specific nutrients believed to protect against cancer are dietary fiber, phytochemicals, and vitamins A, C and E.

Dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is the material from plant cells that the body cannot digest completely. Dietary fiber is found in vegetables, legumes, fruit and whole-grain cereals, nuts and seeds. A diet high in fiber and low in fat may reduce the risk of colon and rectal cancers. Fiber provides bulk in the diet, and it helps move food through the intestines and out of the body at regular intervals. It is unclear whether it is total fiber intake or the components of dietary fiber that is beneficial in reducing cancer risks.

Phytochemicals. Evidence suggests that certain compounds in plant food sources, particularly fruits and vegetables, can be cancer fighting. These compounds are called phytochemicals, which is actually a general name for several cancer-fighting substances, such as flavonoids, allylic sulfides and sulforaphanes. Scientists believe that the compounds stop cancer cells from initiating or developing into tumors. While there is no direct proof these compounds can prevent cancer, eating a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables has proven to be a healthy food choice. Obtaining anticancer substances from food rather than supplements may be the best plan of action to prevent disease.

Beta carotene and vitamin A. Our bodies convert beta carotene to vitamin A. Epidemiological studies suggest that eating foods that contain beta carotene decreases the risk of a variety of cancers. Supplements are not found to provide the same benefit, and excess vitamin A can be toxic. Get vitamin A naturally by eating vitamin A or beta carotene-rich fruits and vegetables: dark green and yellow vegetables such as carrots, winter squash, broccoli and spinach. Deep yellow-orange fruits, such as apricots, peaches and cantaloupe, also are good sources.

Vitamin C. Vitamin C-rich foods may have cancer-inhibiting benefits, particularly for cancers of the stomach and esophagus. Nitrites and nitrates occur naturally in foods. They are commonly added to foods as preservatives and to processed meats for color. These substances can combine with amino acids from proteins to form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are known to cause cancer. This reaction definitely occurs in the test tube. Whether it occurs in the human digestive tract is not yet clear. Research has demonstrated that vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can inhibit the reaction of nitrites with amines or amides. It competes with the amine for the nitrite, which inhibits carcinogenic compound formation.

Vitamin E. Vitamin E has been shown to protect against cancer in some experimental animal studies. The mechanism is similar to vitamin C's: it competes for available nitrite, which blocks the formation of nitrosamines.

Cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables are from the cabbage family and include bok-choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens and turnips. These vegetables also may be important in reducing the risk of cancer, particularly cancer of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Scientists believe the anticancer compound in these foods is called sulforaphane. It is unclear what component of these vegetables is responsible for reducing the risk of cancer, but studies have demonstrated their protective effect.

Tips to increase consumption. It is important to eat a variety of vitamin- and mineral-rich foods, especially fruits, vegetables and whole-grain breads and cereals, rather than relying on supplements. There may be undiscovered cancer-protecting components or nutrients that occur naturally in foods. Also, eating a variety of foods will provide adequate vitamins and minerals to maintain health. To increase dietary fiber, vitamins and selenium, select fiber-rich, whole-grain breads, cereals and pastas; all varieties of fruits and vegetables; legumes; and oat-based products. An added benefit of eating more carbohydrate foods is that fat intake generally is decreased.

Guideline #3 - Consume salt-cured, smoked and charcoal broiled foods only in moderation.

Carcinogens in certain foods. Evidence suggests that eating salt-cured, smoked, pickled and charcoal-broiled foods increases cancer risk. In parts of the world where food is often prepared using these methods, stomach and esophageal cancer cases are higher. In the United States, stomach cancer is declining and esophageal cancer is rare.

Nitrates, often used in the curing process, cause cancer in laboratory animals and are suspected of causing cancer in people. In the process of smoking foods, the foods absorb large amounts of tar that arise from incomplete combustion of wood or charcoal fire. These tars have been found to contain numerous carcinogens. Today, "liquid smoke," which may be less hazardous, often is used.

When meats are charcoal- or gas-broiled, a substance (benzopyrene) is formed when fat from the meat drips onto the hot coals. The rising smoke then carries this carcinogenic substance back up and deposits it onto the meat. However, little evidence suggests that Americans are at risk from excessive consumption of charcoal-broiled food. Much research still is needed to determine the links between charcoal-broiled foods and cancer. In the meantime, it makes sense to consume these foods in moderation.

High-temperature frying or broiling, for example frying bacon, may convert some of the meat proteins into products that damage the genetic material of the body's cells.

Tips to eat moderate amounts. To reduce cancer risk and still enjoy a cookout, cover the grill with foil and punch holes between the grids to let the fat drip out. The foil protects food from smoke and fire. Cook meat until done but don't char it. If food does get charred, remove the charred portions before eating it. Discourage flareups by either dampening coals that become too hot with a squirt of water, or move food to another section of the grill. Also, reduce cooking time on the grill by partially precooking foods in a microwave and then grilling briefly to give it that grilled flavor. It's probably a good idea to eat salt-cured and smoked foods only once in awhile.

Guideline #4 - Drink alcoholic beverages only in moderation.

Alcohol abuse, diet and cancer. Heavy drinking of alcoholic beverages, more than two drinks per day, increases the risk of mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, pancreas and bladder cancers. It is unclear whether it is alcohol or other ingredients in these beverages that are responsible for the association with cancer in people. The carcinogenic effect may be the direct contact of alcohol on the mouth, pharynx and esophagus.

Heavy drinking can result in liver cirrhosis, which may lead to liver cancer. Heavy drinkers and alcoholics commonly have nutritional deficiencies because alcohol contains only empty calories, and food intake often is compromised. When little food is eaten, low nutrient intake often results. If heavy drinkers smoke, as is commonly the case, cancer risk escalates.

The link between cancer and alcohol is complex because frequent alcohol consumption may result in many health problems. The nutritional cancer risk factors are compounded for alcohol abusers. Alcohol is high in calories and low in nutrients. It is difficult for an alcohol abuser to obtain protective benefits from foods when so little nutrient-dense food is eaten.

Tips for moderate alcohol consumption. Instead of alcohol, try non-alcoholic wine, beer, mineral or tonic water, cider, grape juice, or fruit juice. Always provide nonalcoholic beverages and nutrient-dense foods at social gatherings. If you do drink, do so in moderation -- less than two drinks per day -- and don't drive.

Summary: Diets high in fiber and low in fat with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals may reduce the risk of cancer, particularly in individuals at increased risk. In addition to the recommendations by the NAS, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the American Cancer Society (ACS) also recommend maintaining reasonable weight. Along with the outlined diet and nutrition recommendations, to further reduce cancer risk avoid the following: tobacco, work-related exposure to harmful chemicals, and excessive exposure to the sun's rays and x-rays. These are all important preventive actions that may safeguard your health.

Vitamin A-Like Compounds and Lung Cancer: Lung cancer may be linked to a suppressed ability to detect retinoids, a group of vitamin A-like compounds, at the cellular level. The retinoids are thought to control the growth and differentiation of lung cells; a process that, if thwarted, could allow cells to become cancerous.

Green Tea and Vitamin D May Lower Prostate Cancer : Epidemiologic studies suggest that vitamin D and green tea may help prevent prostate cancer when taken in the right amounts.

Benefits of Beta Carotene for Prostate Cancer: Beta carotene may sharply reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men with low beta-carotene blood levels. Subjects with low levels of betacarotene in their diets were one-third more likely to develop prostate cancer. However, men who took supplements seemed to compensate for their deficient diets and were 36 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer than the former subjects.

Why Antioxidants Fight Cancer: Researchers believe they may have discovered how antioxidants fight against cancer. It is believed that cancer cells may cause an abundance of oxidants, or free radicals, by sending signals that promote more uncontrolled growth of the cancer. However, antioxidants may interfere with and block these signals.

Wine May Delay Cancer: Phenolic compounds in wine, which are antioxidants, and other winesolid constituents may significantly delay the onset of cancer. In a study, mice were fed either a special diet of dealcoholized wine solids, or a diet without wine. The group of mice fed wine solids were free of tumors 40 percent longer than mice without wine in their diets. The wine-fed mice also were found to have a significantly higher concentration of catechin, a phenolic compound.

Vitamin A Fights Melanoma : High doses of vitamin A may help fight melanoma. In a study, 60 mice were split into three groups: one group was fed a normal diet, one was fed a vitamin A-rich diet immediately after cancer cells were injected; and one group was given a vitamin A diet 10 days before being given the cancer cell injection. In the first group, all the mice developed tumors and 60 percent survived. In the second group, 40 percent developed tumors but all survived. None of the mice in the third group developed tumors.

Vitamin D-5 May Prevent Cancer: Synthetic vitamin D-5 may prevent cancer without the toxic side effects associated with most D-3 compounds. Although both inhibited lesions in mice by up to 100 percent at the highest concentrations, the D-3 compound was found to be more toxic. And although the D-3 vitamin compound hindered cancerous lesions in smaller doses, the vitamin D-5 compound is nontoxic at active concentrations.

Black Tea May Fight Skin Cancer: Skin cancer in mice decreased by 50 percent after consuming black tea. The mice consuming black tea had 54 percent fewer cancers than those drinking water and significantly fewer than those taking green tea.

Selenium Reduces Mortality Rates for Cancer: When given certain dosage of selenium per day, cancer patients in a study had 37 percent fewer malignancies, a 50-percent reduced risk of death from cancer and a 17-percent decrease in overall mortality. It is believed that selenium supplementation works at its highest potential in the early stages of cancer development.

Grape Seed Extract May Inhibit Tumors: Results of a three-year study indicated that grape seed inhibit the activity of the enzyme ornithine decarboxylase (ODC), a key enzyme in the control of cell division. Researchers discovered that Traconol was found to suppress in vivo mouse skin ODC activity by 30 percent to 50 percent.

Grape Substance Inhibits Tumor Formulation: Researchers completed preliminary laboratory and animal studies that indicate that resveratrol, a natural substance produced by grapes, can inhibit tumor formulation at three stages of cancer.

Soy May Reduce Risk of Uterine Cancer: Researchers reported that increased soy intake in the diet may reduce the risk of endometrial, or uterine, cancer The study found that women who ate the highest amounts of phytoestrogen-rich foods had a 54-percent reduction in endometrial cancer risk, compared to those who consumed the least amounts.

Breast Tissue Composition Can Be Changed Through Diet: A specific diet can change breast tissue composition in a way that might reduce breast cancer. A two-year study of women who adopted a diet low in fat and high in carbohydrates indicated a reduction in the area of mammographic density, which may reduce breast cancer risk.

D-Fraction of Maitake Mushroom Exhibits Anticancer Effects: Clinical studies of the effects of maitake D-fraction on cancer inhibition exhibited an improvement in tumor regression in 11 out of 15 breast cancer patients, 12 out of 18 lung cancer patients and seven out of 15 liver cancer patients. In addition, if maitake was taken alongside chemotherapy, the response rates improved by 12 to 28 percent. However, maitake was less effective against bone and stomach cancers or leukemia.

Artichoke Compound Beneficial in Treating Skin Cancer: Researchers have discovered a nutrition component in artichokes that can prevent skin cancers caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays. The study compared the incidence and number of tumors in mice that received topical applications of silymarin, a compound isolated from the milk thistle plant, before being exposed to UVB radiation. Only 25 percent of the silymarin-treated mice developed tumors compared to 100 percent of the control mice.

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