Eating for Life

A healthy diet is no optional extra, it's a vital necessity

Posted Apr 27, 2010

A keen cook and a self-confessed glutton, I have always been passionate about the selection, preparation and enjoyment of food, though for a long time, the accent was on "pleasure" rather than on "health".

My brush with cancer 10 years ago made me realize that a healthy diet isn't an optional extra but a vital necessity. And so I began eating as though my life depended on it.

While my health has indeed improved, I have been particularly pleasantly surprised to discover how enjoyable a healthy diet can be! To me, fresh, natural food, simply prepared, is incomparably more satisfying and pleasurable than the fatty, crispy, gooey treats I used to delight in. Hold the onion rings - I'll have some crunchy spears of asparagus drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice and dusted with light parmesan shavings, thank you. (What's more, I'll save on antacids!)

When most people think of cancer, they rarely think about food. Many hold the fatalistic belief that cancer is largely programmed by our genes and that there's nothing we can do about it (in fact, at most 15% of cancers can be attributed to genetic causes). Even those of us who are aware that life-style plays a critical role in cancer usually think of smoking, alcohol consumption or sun exposure as the main risk factors.

But few consider food as a factor that may contribute to causing cancer. And yet, it is increasingly understood that diets rich in sugar and refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, red and processed meat and deficient in nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, may increase our cancer risk.

Once cancer has been diagnosed, most people embark on the recommended medical treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination thereof. Very few doctors recommend dietary measures as part of conventional cancer treatments. Medical students are taught only the bare essentials of nutritional science.

Nevertheless, nutrition plays a crucial role, both in preventing and in overcoming cancer. In its landmark Expert Report, the most comprehensive report ever produced on the links between lifestyle and cancer risk, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) estimates that up to 30% of all cancers could be prevented by eating an optimal diet, getting regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy body weight.

Some experts even suggest that some of the commonest forms of cancer, such as breast-, colorectal and prostate cancer, could be reduced by 60-70% and lung cancers by 40-50% if people ate an anti-cancer diet. Even cancer patients undergoing treatment may find this type of diet helpful, some studies suggest.

A healthy diet is certainly not a stand-alone treatment for cancer, nor is it a fool-proof tool for prevention. Modern medical approaches are an essential part of any cancer therapy. Nonetheless, what and how you eat before, during and after cancer treatment can have a crucial impact on its outcome.

Meanwhile, for those of us who are healthy but worry about becoming ill - without prevention, about one in three American women and one in two men will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime, the National Cancer Institute predicts - it's important to know that changes in diet can very much tip the odds in our favor.

By the way, healthy eating isn't just for cancer patients. There are benefits to everyone in a diet that boosts general health and well-being. Thus, an "anti-cancer" diet can potentially help prevent or relieve a long list of other medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, dementia, arthritis and even depression.

In addition to helping improve overall health, the anti-cancer diet I follow has no known negative side-effects. In my experience, if there are any "side-effects," they are increased energy, fewer colds and sore throats, clearer skin, better digestion and a happier disposition. Fine with me!

In my next post I will unveil my Anti-Cancer Challenge eating plan for the remaining 11 months of this project, so watch this space.