So What Should You Eat? The Impact of Diet on Cancer
To start off our exploration of the social determinants of health, let’s delve into something that we need on a frequent basis in order to survive: food.
The risk of developing and/or dying from cancer can be impacted by the quality of one’s diet and physical activity. Following a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and being physically active can lead to lower risk of getting cancer. Daily healthy habits like diet and exercise have proven to be an even larger factor in developing cancer than was previously thought. In fact, according to the World Cancer Research Fund, at least 18% of all cancer diagnoses can be traced back to “body fatness, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption, and/or poor nutrition.” This matter is an important and urgent one to address, as this factor is preventable and a focus on reducing it can save many lives.
So, how can you reduce the chance of developing cancer with your dietary choices? For one, you should be mindful of your eating patterns. Focus on eating foods high in nutrients, with many vitamins and minerals. Your plates should be filled with color and a variety of foods, from leafy greens to brown rice and pasta. High-calorie, processed foods that add very little nutritional value should be eaten in moderation (though not completely cut out of your diet. If it makes you happy to eat, then you should still eat it!). Fiber-rich foods such as beans and peas are a great source to keep you full and satisfied. In terms of drinks, opt for water over more sugary beverages. Soft drinks, sports drinks, and fruit drinks are often infused with overwhelming amounts of sugar, so drinking them constantly can lead to too much sugar intake, which can lead to diseases such as type II diabetes. Water is always the best option, as it refreshes you and it is incredibly important for many bodily functions.
A recent development in the world of diet and cancer is the question of whether red meat increases the risk of cancer. The American Cancer Society advises against including red meats like beef, pork, and lamb into your diet, as well as processed meats like bacon and sausage. Other sources link red and processed meats directly to bowel cancer. The idea is that these meats contain haem iron, which when broken down forms N-nitroso compounds that can damage the cells lining the bowel. Another speculation is that cancer-causing chemicals are released when eating burnt or charred meat. However, there are some upsides to eating red meat: lean red meat provides a source of iron, zinc, Vitamin B12, and a hefty serving of protein.
Red meat does not need to be completely cut out of one’s diet. Instead, be mindful of how much red meat you are consuming and try to find other substitutes. The American Cancer Society recommends instead choosing fish, poultry, or beans as a source of protein. As a vegetarian myself, I still get the nutrients that I am missing by eating eggs and tofu as well as taking zinc and iron supplements.
Another factor to be cognizant of is portion size. Since portion size directly correlates to weight, you should be aware of how much you are eating at a time. According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the excess calories from large portion sizes can lead to weight gain and excess body fat, which in turn makes you more at risk for endometrial, colorectal, and post-menopausal breast cancer. When you’re eating, be conscious not just of how large your plate is but also how much of each food group you are filling your plate with. Below is an image of the MyPlate, which is a guide to go by when creating your meals. Here is a link to learn more about each of the food groups: https://www.myplate.gov
Unfortunately, socioeconomically disadvantaged populations may not have the resources to ensure they eat healthy foods or get the necessary exercise. Nutrient-dense foods are often expensive or difficult to access impoverished neighborhoods. I will continue exploring the disproportionate effects of food accessibility and exercise in future posts. Until then…
“Diet and Physical Activity: What’s The Cancer Connection?” American Cancer Society, 9 June 2021, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/diet-and-physical-activity.html.
“Red and Processed Meat and Cancer Risk.” Cancer Council NSW, 1 Sept. 2021, https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/cancer-prevention/diet-exercise/nutrition-and-diet/meat-and-cancer/.
MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Markham Heid. “Portion Sizes and Your Cancer Risk.” MD Anderson Cancer Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, 6 July 2015, https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/FOH-portion-sizes.h16-1589835.html.