Is There a Link Between Nutrition and Cancer?

By Dwight Fitch, MD  –

nutrition and cancerWhile many questions in life are debatable, some things, like the link between nutrition and cancer or the pure awesomeness of The Incredible Hulk (who is reportedly a HUGE broccoli fan) can’t be argued.

To understand the link, one must first understand what cancer is. It is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. Damage to the DNA of these cells causes them to become a cancer. Carcinogens are substances that can damage DNA and are present everywhere in our environment- food, air, even within our own bodies at times.

So carcinogens damage DNA, which then increase the chance for cells to become cancerous. Different foods that we eat help to decrease the amount or impact of these carcinogens in several ways. For instance, while dietary fiber won’t stop bullets or speeding trains, it can help stop the development of colon cancer. It is thought that fiber accomplishes this by helping to move carcinogens through the colon faster. Population studies show that countries with diets high in fiber have low colon cancer rates. Those with high fiber diets also have a lower incidence of breast cancer, likely as a result of binding with excess estrogen in the intestinal system.

Another source of protection is provided by antioxidants. Antioxidants achieve this by helping to neutralize and deactivate carcinogens called “free radicals.” Some common antioxidants include vitamins A, C, and E. Others include minerals such as selenium or flavonoids, which are phytochemicals that are found in the pigment of colorful fruits and vegetables. Some of the best sources of these flavonoids are carrots, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and turnips. They can also be found in some teas, wines, and even beer. Yes, beer. Score! These same vegetables are also great sources for vitamins A, C, and E. Many citrus fruits are also great sources for vitamin C.

While having fiber and antioxidants in your diet can help to lower your cancer risk, having a diet high in fats can increase your risk. The exact mechanism isn’t known, but it is clear from population studies that countries with high fat diets, such as those that have a lot of red meat, have much higher rates of several cancers, including breast and colon. Some studies suggest that vegetarians have about half the risk of developing cancer as meat eaters. However, this doesn’t mean that eating red meat in moderation isn’t ok. (I don’t want to cause a riot within the National Beef Association.) The key is to eat it in moderation, and make fruits and vegetables a larger part of your diet.

While drinking alcohol can increase your risk of cancer, it may also help lower heart disease. Wait, huh? What sorts of shenanigans am I trying to pull here? (I love using the word shenanigans. It is so seldom appropriate.) Moderation is the key! Moderate alcohol consumption may be beneficial for heart disease, but excessive alcohol can increase the risk of several cancers. There is no clear definition of “moderate” drinking, but most guidelines suggest 1 drink daily for women and 2 drinks for men. This recommendation is not meant to be an average over several days however. Therefore having 14 drinks on Saturday night and claiming you drink in “moderation” is not entirely accurate.

At this point I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m sure glad I buy all those vitamins and supplements! I’m set!” Well, not exactly. While it makes sense in theory, simply taking vitamin A, C, E or selenium pills doesn’t give the same benefits as eating the whole foods that contain these cancer fighting agents. The same is true of the flavonoids or phytochemicals. My sincerest apologies to GNC or any other vitamin superstore, but I’m not making this up! It doesn’t mean that some people don’t need to supplement the amount of certain vitamins and minerals they need, due to some deficiencies, but it does mean that taking a handful of pills is not a substitute for having a plateful of colorful vegetables and/or tasty fruits for snacks. Most researchers now believe that it is the complex interplay between the antioxidants, minerals, and phytochemicals in plant-based foods that provide the protection.

In conclusion, a cancer prevention diet is one that is high in fiber, low in animal fats and has generous portions of fruits and vegetables. Alcohol in moderation is ok, and even has some health benefits, while alcohol in excess is bad, bad, and bad. There is no proof that taking vitamins or supplements can replace having a balanced, healthy diet, no matter which celebrity, superstar, or magazine ad suggests it. As with most things, it seems that Mom was right after all when she said, “EAT YOUR VEGGIES!!” (And I’m sorry, but french fries don’t count as vegetables. I checked.)

Dwight Fitch, MD
Dr. Fitch is a native of Detroit, MI, and received a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. During his undergraduate years he worked on a variety of projects at Dow Chemical Company, ranging from reducing air pollution from hazardous waste incinerators to developing new computer drives. After realizing that his heart was really with direct patient care, he went on to receive his medical degree from the University of Michigan. Dr. Fitch performed both his internship and radiation oncology residency at William Beaumont Hospital, in Royal Oak, MI, serving as Chief Resident during his final year.

Dr. Fitch is specially trained in advanced radiation therapy techniques including; high doserate (HDR) brachytherapy- a special type of implanted radiation that delivers high doses of radiation locally and safely; intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)- a technique which allows the safe delivery of higher doses of external radiation to a tumor, while limiting radiation dose to normal tissues, which in turn decreases side effects; and image guided radiation therapy (IGRT)- the latest technique available to further ensure proper tumor localization and treatment.

Dr. Fitch is the author of many scientific articles published in peer-reviewed journals and has spoken at multiple medical conferences. The patient, however, is the focus of his concern and attention. He is committed to utilize 21st Century Oncology’s cutting edge technology to serve patients with compassion and kindness.

He enjoys exercise, golf, basketball and spending time with his family. He is also a volunteer/mentor at various community organizations such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Club, and the Police Athletic League.

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