By Gabe Mirkin, MD
Results from the huge EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) confirm that eating a lot of junk food increases risk for many cancers. Researchers in Paris followed 471,495 adults in 10 European countries for an average of 15.3 years, and the participants developed 49,794 cancers. The participants’ diets were scored using the British Food Standards Agency’s Nutrient Profiling System (FSAm-NPS), which ranks foods according to their healthful and harmful components. Those who ate more of the harmful and less of the healthful food components were at significantly greater risk for developing cancers, particularly cancers of the breast, prostate, colon-rectum, mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, lung and liver (PLoS Medicine, Sept 18, 2018;15(9):e1002651).
The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 40 percent of cancers are associated with modifiable lifestyle factors, such as:
• Chronic inflammation
• Lack of exercise
• Various infections
• Certain hormones
• Cumulative lifetime exposure to radiation
• Cumulative lifetime exposure to various carcinogens
• Sugar-added foods
• Sugared drinks
• Red meats and processed meats
• Fried, grilled or charred foods, particularly meats and fats
• Diet low in plants: fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and other seeds
• Eating refined grains instead of whole grains
Lifestyle Factors that Cause Inflammation Increase Risk for Cancer
When a germ gets into your body, your immunity recognizes that the germ cells have proteins on their outer surfaces that are different from your body’s own cells. Your immunity produces cells and proteins that attack and kill these invading germs. However, as soon as the invading germs are gone, your immunity is supposed to slow down and stop producing all the proteins and cells that did the attacking and killing. Inflammation means that your immunity stays active and starts to attack and damage your own cells and the DNA genetic material inside them.
Normal cells undergo apoptosis which means that they live only a certain number of days and then die. However, if your immunity damages your DNA, the cells may be changed so they forget to die and try to live forever, which is cancer. The “immortal” cancer cells can overgrow and invade other tissues to destroy them and kill you. For example, breast cancer cells do not kill you as long as they stay in the breast, but the breast cancer cells can become so numerous that they spread to your brain, lungs, bones or other tissues and kill you by destroying these essential tissues.
How High Blood Sugar Causes Inflammation
The same cells and chemicals that kill germs also start the healing process, so damage to any tissue in your body turns on your immunity in the same way that infections do and therefore can cause inflammation. When blood sugar levels rise too high, sugar sticks to the outer membranes of cells throughout your body and damages them to turn on your immunity. If your immunity stays active all the time, it is called inflammation and these same cells and cytokines attack you to punch holes in your arteries to form plaques and eventually to break off these plaques to cause heart attacks. The immune cells can also attack your own DNA to cause cancers. A review of the world’s literature shows that non-diabetics with high blood sugar levels suffer a marked increase in breast, colon, liver, stomach, pancreatic and endometrial cancers (Diabetologia, September 8, 2014). Furthermore, high blood sugar levels cause high insulin levels that also increase cancer risk (JCI, May 2013;4(3)). Other studies show that high blood sugar levels are associated with increased risk for prostate cancer (Horm Cancer, April 2016;7(2):75-83) and breast cancer by causing inflammation through the 12-Lipoxygenase (12-HETE) pathway (Cancer Res, Jan 1, 2016;76(1);24–29).
Lifestyle Changes Treat Cancer
Men who have prostate cancer and adopt a heart-healthy, plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruit, beans, fish and whole grains are far less likely to die from prostate cancer, compared to prostate cancer patients who continue to eat red meat, processed meat, eggs, potatoes, high-fat dairy products and refined grains (Cancer Prevention Research, published online June 1, 2015). A Mediterranean-style diet prolonged the lives of men previously diagnosed with prostate cancer (European Urology, May 2014; 65(5): 887-894) and reduced risk for recurrence of prostate cancer (Int J Cancer, 2012, 131:201-210). Avoiding alcohol and overweight also helped to prevent prostate cancer recurrence (Cancer Causes & Control, January 6, 2015).
A seven-year study of almost 1000 patients with colon cancer that had already spread to their bellies had a 42 percent reduction in death rate and a 31 percent reduction in recurrence of their cancer when they avoided overweight, exercised regularly (one hour of walking per day), restricted alcohol, and ate a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables and fruits and low in red meat and processed meat (Abstract 10006, 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, May 17, 2017). The World Cancer Research Fund, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society recommend that cancer patients follow a largely plant-based diet with limited consumption of meat, restriction of alcohol, maintenance of a healthy weight and a regular exercise program (Maturitas, May 19, 2017).