Are we cooking up cancer?

Are we cooking up cancer?

Dr Natalie Medley

Monday, September 28, 2020

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CANCER is a leading cause of death. Some cancers are common in certain families because of a genetic predisposition, but most are not. Screening and vaccination can prevent certain cancers, but lifestyle choices are also important. Patients would often tell me that they changed their diet and noticed dramatic reduction in symptoms. This prompted me to look into the impact of diet on cancer risk and prevention.

It can be difficult to establish a direct link between certain foods and cancer, but there is quite a bit of evidence on the matter.

Diet and cancer

How can what we eat put us at risk for cancer? Nutrition plays a role in disease prevention and causation, including cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund, 30-40 per cent of all cancers can be prevented by appropriate diets, physical activity and maintenance of appropriate body weight. Obesity has been linked to many cancers. Some foods linked to cancer include red meat, processed meat, sugar and refined carbohydrates and a high fat diet. Conversely, there are certain foods which may reduce cancer risk.

Red meat and processed meat

There is evidence linking red meat to cancers of the colorectum, pancreas and prostate. There is stronger evidence to support the cancer-causing effect of consumption of processed meat. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) places processed meat and cigarette smoking in the same cancer risk category. Meat consumption may increase cancer risk through chemical substances developed through meat processing, preservation and cooking but perhaps not to meat consumption itself.

Eating moderate amounts of meat can provide protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. Research found, however, that consuming more than 76g of red and processed meat a day had an increased risk of developing bowel cancer compared to those who ate about 21g a day. Healthier alternatives include implementing no meat days, eating more nuts and beans as sources of protein, choosing leaner cuts of meat, baking instead of frying, and avoiding processed meats where possible.

The carcinogenic effect of meat consumption may be due to chemical substances — eg n-nitroso-compounds, polycyclic-aromatic hydrocarbons, and heterocyclic aromatic-amines developed through meat processing, preservation and cooking but not to meat consumption per se. Indeed, several mechanisms related to these chemicals were considered as potential explanations for the association between meat consumption and cancer risk by the same IARC Working Group.


Higher levels of blood glucose and insulin are cancer risk factors, specifically endometrial, ovarian, breast and digestive tract cancers. Insulin has been shown to stimulate cell division, supporting the growth and spread of cancer cells and making them more difficult to eliminate. Healthier options are limiting the amount of added sugars, and substituting sodas and juices for still or sparkling water or flavoured water infused with fruits or lime wedges. Green tea and coffee have antioxidant and possibly cancer-fighting properties.

High-fat diet

A diet high in saturated fats has been linked to cancers of the colorectum, breast, endometrium, ovary, and prostate. Limiting the intake of saturated fat is strongly advised. Good sources of fats are foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as sardines, mackerel, flaxseed, soybeans, walnuts, sunflower seeds and avocados.

Cancer-fighting foods

Foods rich in beta-carotene, carotenoids and vitamin C which contain antioxidants, and a high fibre diet may have powerful cancer-preventing and cancer-fighting effects. These include most fruits and vegetables. Spices such as turmeric, cinnamon and garlic may also be potent cancer-fighting agents. Food for thought.

Dr Natalie Medley is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Mona Institute of Medical Sciences, UHWI. She can be contacted at (876) 977-1512, (876) 618-6048 or

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