Go get some sunlight to get your vitamin D, but don’t stay out long or you could get cancer!
The never ending and extremely confusing flood of health advice….
How much do my lifestyle choices, especially eating habits, actually influence my cancer risk? And can the vegan diet really help prevent cancer?
You probably know someone that has cancer or someone who lost their battle with cancer. It is a very scary disease, especially if you have to watch a loved one go through it. Some of you are probably following anti-cancer advice right now, some of you don’t know what to believe, and some think that cancer is mostly genetic and can’t be prevented at all.
According to the CDC, cancer is the second leading cause of death and accounts for about 23% of the total deaths in the USA (source). While cancer death rates have dropped by 27% from 2005 to 2016, it is estimated that 1,762,450 cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2019. That is 1 in 3, and 80% of all cancers that are diagnosed in the US are in people 55 years or older.
The good news is that since the 1960s cancer survival rates went from 39% to 70% among Caucasians and from 27% to 63% among African Americans (cancer.org).
Is cancer avoidable?
“According to a recent study by American Cancer Society researchers, at least 42% of newly diagnosed cancers in the US – about 740,000 cases in 2019 – are potentially avoidable” (source)
Did you know that only 5-10% of cancer cases are due to genetic defects?
Often we can’t explain the cause of a certain disease so we come to the conclusion that it must be genetics (I am guilty of that). Some simply don’t know how to do the proper research while others simply don’t know how to change their lifestyle to prevent these (sadly very common) deadly diseases.
Please take a close look at the infographic below. About 90% of cancer factors are due to environmental and lifestyle causes. Actually, 30-35% of these 90% are linked to diet (Cancer Center in Texas):
To summarize the image above: A healthy diet, the avoidance of alcohol and smoking, and keeping a healthy BMI can potentially cut your cancer risk by 62-82%.
If we take the blue 35% “diet” part out of the diagram we can see the percentage of certain cancer deaths that are linked to diet below.
To sum this up, most cancer occurrences can potentially be avoided with diet and lifestyle change.
What foods can cause cancer?
The International Agency for Research of Cancer is a part of the WHO and identified causes of cancer. In the past they evaluated cancer causing potential and placed those causes into multiple groups. Let’s focus on the first two groups (source):
- Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans
- Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans
You should read the full list here, but here are some items listed in each of these groups.
Group 1: alcohol, asbestos, coal, formaldehyde, leather dust, processed meat (consumption of), salted fish (Chinese-style), tobacco smoke, UV radiation, wood dust, X- and Gamma- radiation.
Group 2a: frying (emissions from high-temperature), lead compounds, red meat (consumption of), very hot beverages (above 65 degrees Celsius)
The bold printed items are food or eating related. You can see how they relate to other cancer causing items. For example, processed meat is in the same category as tobacco smoke and UV radiation. The red meat (group 2a) is “probably” carcinogenic (according to the IARC). Another source states:
“Heavy consumption of red meat is a risk factor for several cancers, especially for those of the gastrointestinal tract, but also for colorectal, prostate, bladder, breast, gastric, pancreatic, and oral cancers.” (source)
There might be an eight fold difference in colorectal cancer risk between a high-vegetable, low-meat diet versus high-meat, low-vegetable diet (source). This case control study was performed in Greece.
The above information gives you some pointers on what cancer promoting foods (or eating habits) to avoid. And I am sure the list will grow with more scientific evidence over the years.
It is not just about avoiding certain foods that might cause cancer, but also including foods in your diet that fight cancer. Your body has the ability to heal itself but you help yourself by eating the right foods.
I also want to mention here that quantity plays a large role in reducing cancer risk as well. You don’t have to go 100% plant based to reduce your cancer risk. Even though I believe going all in is best for your health, I am well aware that this step is hard. So if you can at least reduce the bad food and increase the good food over time, you can reap some benefits.
Anti cancer foods
There are some studies that take a close look at certain foods and their cancer fighting power. In general, higher fruit and vegetable intake has been proven to fight cancer:
“Extensive research has revealed that a diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, spices, and grains has the potential to prevent cancer… Major chemopreventive compounds identified from fruits and vegetables includes carotenoids, vitamins, resveratrol, quercetin, silymarin, sulphoraphane and indole-3-carbinol.” (source)
Spices may have cancer fighting properties. Turmeric is one of the better studied spices when it comes to cancer fighting foods. It can kill a wider variety of cancer cells (source).
“Curcumin, from Curcuma longa, is a highly promising natural compound that can be potentially used for chemoprevention of multiple cancers.” (source)
You can add some turmeric into your green smoothie without tasting it. Turmeric is also anti-inflammatory, an immunity boosting food and a weight loss super food. Here are some recipes using turmeric powder:
In Petri-dish studies, phytates have been shown to inhibit the growth of cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. Phytate rich foods are beans. As this study shows, increasing bean intake by even less than 70g a day cuts back the pre-cancer clusters (for colon cancer) up to 65 percent.
In an animal study, walnuts were found to inhibit the growth rate of human breast cancers implanted in nude mice by ∼80%. Another nut that has cancer protective properties is the Brazil nut. The high selenium content in Brazil nuts is the reason for the anti (lung) cancer effect (source).
You can simply add one Brazil nut to your morning breakfast bowl to get your daily dose of selenium. Nuts are not just great for cancer prevention, they have also anti-inflammatory properties and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease (source).
Broccoli, just like cauliflower, cabbage, and more, belongs to the Cruciferous vegetable family. Some evidence shows that a high intake of these vegetables will lower the risk of colorectal cancer (source).
And more broccoli specific: the compound “Sulforaphane” found in broccoli reduced breast cancer cells in a test-tube by up to 75% (study).
The compound found to prevent against prostate cancer is called Lycopene. However, it seems like this compound is best consumed in the whole plant, not a supplement. View the video below for more information.
Over 12,000 Seventh-Day Adventist men were asked about their consumption of soy milk. The results:
“Frequent consumption (more than once a day) of soy milk was associated with 70 per cent reduction of the risk of prostate cancer.” (source)
Another study compared the effect of soy protein powder intake and milk protein powder intake on men that were at risk for prostate cancer. The milk protein powder group got 6 times more prostate cancer.
More than 90% of Americans do not eat the recommended amount of fiber (source). This is bad news, because there is proof that fiber reduces the risk of colon cancer (source) and breast cancer (source).
Fiber really is a superfood. Besides the anti-cancer properties, high fiber intake reduces the risk of diabetes (source), heart disease (source), obesity (source), and stroke (source). It helps control cholesterol (source) and blood sugar levels (source). All my meal plans are high in fiber and you can check them out here.
Lignans are found in plants and are highly concentrated in flax seed. They show anti breast cancer growth activity in a Petri-dish (source). In another study they tested flax seed and flax bread consumption and also found a reduced breast cancer risk (source).
Flax seed is also a great food for lowering blood pressure. There is a seven point drop of blood pressure from consuming 1 tablespoon flaxseed a day (source). That means 46% less stroke risk and 29% less heart disease risk. Flaxseed prevents cardiovascular disease in general (source).
You can add flax seed to your smoothies, oat bowls, and even salad bowls. Other recipes with flax seed:
The Vegan Diet and Cancer
“A recent study by Oxford University, looking at how diet affects cancer risk, revealed that vegans have a much lower risk of getting the disease (Key et al., 2014). The 15-year-long study followed 60,000 British men and women, of which over 18,000 were vegetarians and 2,246 vegan. They found that overall cancer incidence (compared to meat-eaters) was 11 per cent lower in vegetarians and 19 per cent lower in vegans.” (source)
These findings seem logical because vegetarians and vegans naturally avoid cancer causing foods and eat more of those cancer fighting foods. BUT in reality, you don’t have to be 100% vegan to do so.
If you don’t want to follow a strict vegan diet, simply increase the cancer fighting food and avoid the cancer causing foods (like lunch meat, etc.). On the other side, not all vegans eat an anti-cancer vegan diet. There are a lot of processed plant foods out there like chips, fake processed meat items, and cookies to name a few. It is more important to eat a whole food plant based diet that includes the foods mentioned above like spices, soy, legumes, and so on.
“In a study led by Imperial College London, eating 10 portions of fruits and vegetables a day is associated with 13 percent reduced risk of total cancer” (source).
Of course, being on a vegan diet doesn’t immediately mean you actually eat 10 servings of fruits and veggies per day, but you are definitely more likely to do so. We usually consume 6-10 servings per day naturally. Here is an example meal plan. Vegans also reach for tofu (soy products) and legumes more often for their plant based protein source which were discussed above as cancer fighting foods.
Another reason why the vegan diet might be the best cancer fighting diet is because vegans are the only diet group that average a normal BMI (source). Since obesity accounts for 10-20% of environmental factors (95%) that cause cancer, keeping a healthy BMI is key to a healthy life.
Further Education on the Vegan Diet: