Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide. Deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue rising, with an estimated 12 million deaths in 2030. The most common cancers in men include lung, stomach, liver, colorectal and prostate cancer. The most common cancers in women include breast, lung, stomach, colorectal and cervical cancers. Studies have shown that two-third of cancer cases in India are lifestyle associated and hence preventable. Carcinogens are substances that induce cancer cells. These include physical carcinogens (ultraviolet and ionizing radiations), biological carcinogens (certain bacteria, viruses and parasites) and chemical carcinogens (synthetic products created by industry, components of smoke, chemicals used in the food industry etc).
Some factors which increase cancer risk include increasing age, stressful lifestyle associated with poor nutritional status, use of tobacco, alcohol, chronic infections and low fruit & vegetable intake. Being overweight too increases the risk of breast, esophageal, colorectal, ovarian and endometrial cancer.
Antioxidants are substances which scavenge free radicals and protect our body from oxidative damage and prevent the development of cancers. These include vitamin A (beta-carotene), vitamin C, vitamin E, the minerals selenium, manganese, zinc, copper and many phytochemicals like lycopene, anthocyanins etc.
Foods which help in preventing the development and progression of cancers:
1. Turmeric: Its active ingredient curcumin has anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties.
2. Tomatoes: rich in a red phytochemical called lycopene which is a strong antioxidant and is associated with a reduced risk of prostate, lung, breast and endometrial cancer.
3. Berries: especially strawberries and raspberries are rich in antioxidant vitamin C and a phytochemical called ellagic acid which is associated with a reduced risk of cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder, esophagus and breast.
4. Purple, red and blue colored fruits & vegetables: contain a phytonutrient anthocynanin which is a type of flavonoid with strong antioxidant properties. Anthocyanin is found in berries like strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, black currants, red cabbage, purple grapes, tomatoes, pomegranate etc.
5. Citrus fruits: A diet rich in citrus fruits such as orange, lemon, lime etc has been found to be associated with a reduced risk of cancers of the respiratory tract.
6. Broccoli: Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, kale and cabbage contain powerful phytochemcials called glucosinolates produce protective enzymes and reduce risk of prostate, lung, colon, breast, bladder, liver, mouth, esophagus etc.
7. Garlic: The sulphur compounds in garlic and other veggies of the allium family (onions, leeks, chives etc) fight cancer cells that attack the stomach, esophagus, colon, pancreas and breast.
8. Carrots & bell peppers: Carrots are packed with beta-carotene, an antioxidant that slows down the growth of cancer cells. Carrots contain other phytochemcials too which are associated with a reduced risk of cancers of various types including cervical cancers.
9. Leafy greens: especially spinach contains lutein, zeaxanthin and carotenoids that scavenge free radicals thus may reduce the risk of cancers of various types.
10. Whole grains: These are loaded with fibre and bioactive components called lignans which act as antioxidants.
11. Beans: Beans are high in fibre too and can offer protection against colorectal cancer.
12. Nuts & seeds: These are packed with fibre, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals like selenium and several phytochemicals which strengthen our defense against cancer cells.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Also, it’s easy to see that a diet which is good for overall health also helps to minimize free radical damage that leads to the growth of cancer cells. Though there is no fool-proof way to prevent the development of cancers, these guidelines can certainly be helpful.
Foods which can lead to cancers:
1. Canned foods: The lining of most cans contain bisphenol A (BPA) which is known to increase cancer risk. Of canned goods, tomatoes and its products are the worst because their acidity causes more BPA to leach into the food.
2. Highly salted foods: Regular consumption of highly salted foods can lead to stomach cancer.
3. Charred meats: High heat plus red meat produces DNA damaging heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Avoid smoked meats. Cook meat on medium heat, flipping at intervals.
4. Processed & smoked meats: Chemicals present in red meat and those produced on processing such as nitrosoamines, besides the nitrates used as preservatives can lead to bowel cancer.
5. Microwavable popcorn: The bag of microwavable popcorns is lined with perfluoro-octanoicacid (PFOA) which is a likely carcinogen. So make your popcorns the traditional way.
6. Hydrogenated fats: change the shape of cellular membranes and promote the growth of abnormal cells.
7. Sodas: Sodas are a deadly concoction of harmful colors, preservatives loaded with tonnes of sugar and hidden sugars.
8. Artificial sweeteners: Switching to artificial sweeteners to save some calories is not a wise decision either. Several studies have shown a link between artificial sweeteners and cancer risk in lab studies. More research is required to fully establish the relationship in humans. However, their regular use is associated with metabolic disorders.
9. Piping hot foods: These have been associated with a greater risk of esophageal cancer.
10. Alcohol: Several studies have established the link between alcohol intake and cancer though the exact mechanism is not understood. It could be through promoting weight gain. Moderation in consumption is critical to minimize its damaging effects.