In 2020 – now only two years away – it’s estimated that almost one in every two Britons (47pc) who die will have had a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. And the rate of diagnosis is rising – in 2010 it was 44pc, and in 1992 it was 32pc. If the trend continues, it will soon be fair to say that the majority of us will suffer from cancer in our lifetimes.
Already, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the Western world; worldwide, it accounts for one in six deaths. Strikingly, almost a third of all deaths from cancer can be attributed to lifestyle and behavioural risks, such as being overweight, smoking, drinking alcohol, lack of exercise and low intake of fruit and vegetables. The World Health Organisation estimate that nutrition and lifestyle factors may be responsible of up to 80pc of colorectal, breast and prostate cancer cases, and of one third of all cancer cases.
Eye opening stuff – but in one sense it shouldn’t come as a surprise. As far back as the 1970s, research demonstrated that many Western countries, including the UK, had diets high in animal products, fats, and, and associated high rates of colorectal, breast, prostrate, endometrial and lung cancer. Conversely, developing countries had diets based on a couple of starchy staple foods and low intakes of animal products, fats, and sugar; they also had low rates of these cancers.
In other words, we’ve known that our lifestyles are linked to cancer – and yet, we’ve struggled to change our behaviours accordingly. One in four Britons is now either overweight or obese, and excess weight carries with it huge risks for cancer development. A recent study in the United States found that obesity and being overweight accounted for 14pc of all cancer deaths in men and 20pc of those in women.
So, given that the average Western diet is often unhealthy and can promote increased cancer risk, how can we change our diets to decrease this risk? The most cancer preventative diets are those based on a Mediterranean or Japanese diet. These diets are based on a balanced ratio of omega 6 and 3 fatty acids, along with high levels of fibre and antioxidants in fruit, vegetables, olive oil and wine. The Japanese diet in particular is thought to confer cancer preventative mechanisms as it contains up to five times the amount of cruciferous vegetables as an American diet, as well as eating more unprocessed soy foods.
There are several cancer prevention guidelines based on research collated by World Cancer Research Fund, The American Institute for Cancer research, and the World Health Organisation among others. These include eating a diet rich in a variety of fruit and vegetables, avoiding red and processed meat (particularly that which is grilled or fried), and improving gut health by eating more fibre and fermented foods. Limiting alcohol consumption is also both obvious and necessary.
Whilst there are many foods that prevent cancer, below I’ve listed some of my favourites, which are really simple to include in your daily diet and are backed by evidence based science.
Onions and garlic
Both of these can be added to virtually any savoury dish to make it taste better … and prevent cancer.
Allicin and allyl sulphides are the active compounds in garlic and onion which take credit for its superstar status. These compounds bind with toxic chemicals so they can be excreted from the body, rather than taking a hold on your organs and causing havoc. The sulphur compounds act as bodyguards against oxidation and free radicals, which can cause cancer.
Tomatoes are packed with lycopene, which has been shown to help prevent prostate cancer, specifically by preventing the development of free radicals and DNA damage. Populations that eat lots of tomato dishes have a much lower risk of prostate cancer in men.
Cooking tomatoes, particularly in olive oil, increases the lycopene content and allows higher absorption into our cells. This explains why the Mediterranean diet is so effective on the cancer prevention front.
All berries are packed with anti-cancer molecules such as ellagic acid (raspberries and strawberries are loaded with this) and anthocyanidins (blueberries). Both compounds block the activity of two proteins which are essential to cancer spreading and forming new blood vessels.
Similarly, proanthocyanidins (cranberries) have high antioxidant activity, which can halt tumour development.
Snack on seasonal berries or throw into your morning porridge.
Several epidemiological studies have found that regular mushroom consumption reduces the rate of mortality from cancer. Japanese mushrooms such as shiitake, maitake and enokitake are packed with lentinan, which stimulates immune system activity, slowing tumour growth and the progress of cancer. They also help stimulate white blood cell count and activity.
Saute mushrooms with garlic, onion and basil and serve on sourdough or wholegrain toast for a real anti-cancer boost.
This ubiquitous herb is high in apigenin, a polyphenol that inhibits the growth of cancer cells by blocking angiogenesis (blood vessel formation) and by decreasing inflammatory processes.
Parsley can be added raw or cooked to a range of cuisines, including Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. Chop up and add to eggs, hummous, or use as a garnish on any dish.