Who isn’t afraid of the word “cancer”? we all know a family member or a friend who had it. And indeed, according to the American Cancer Society, more than one million people in the United States get cancer each year.
The American Cancer Society lists many possible causes to cancer disease, including genetic factors, lifestyle factors such as tobacco use, diet, and physical activity, certain types of infections and environmental exposures to different types of chemicals and radiation. Since I’m very interested in healthy nutrition, I’ve written in the past about the top 14 foods that protect against cancer development, but it won’t help if we eat those foods while consuming large amounts of other foods that can increase the risk of cancer. So lets have a look at these cancer promoting foods so we all know not only what to eat, but what NOT to eat (or at least reduce their intake).
1. High intake of processed foods
Many different substances are added to commercially prepared foods, such as artificial colors, chemical flavors, salt, sugar or artificial sweeteners. These additives are constantly investigated by researchers to check if any of them is thought to be a real risk. Sometimes there is a scare about a particular additive and some additives are thought to be a cancer risk. Heavily salted, smoked and pickled foods, for example, may increase the risk of stomach cancer. This may explain why there is such a high rate of stomach cancer in Japan, where salty, pickled foods are popular. Also an epidemiological study published in June 2010 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a diet high in salt can increase in 10% the risk of stomach cancer. Also artificial food coloring present many health risks. The research on artificial food coloring and cancer is limited to animal studies, including mice and rats, but some claim that these dyes are toxic – possibly toxic enough to cause cancer also to humans.
2. High intakes of red meat, processed meat or charred food
It has been found that bowel and stomach cancer are more common in people who eat lots of red and processed meat. Red meat includes all fresh, minced and frozen beef, pork, lamb or veal. Also processed meats posses a risk for cancer. These have been preserved in some way other than freezing and include bacon, ham, salami, sausages, corned beef, black pudding, pâté and tinned meat. When you eat processed meats, you’re almost assuredly consuming sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate, which are added to processed and cured meats to preserve color and extend shelf life. Unfortunately, these compounds can be converted to nitrosamines, which are also known to cause cancer in laboratory rats (though again, the link in people is unclear). Also hot dogs, bacon and the like may also be preserved by methods involving smoke or salt, which also increases the exposure to potentially carcinogenic chemicals.
Also charred food creates chemicals that can damage our cells, making them more likely to become cancerous. Therefore the way you cook your meat can potentially make a big difference in the cancer risk it poses to you. Well-done and char-grilled meats that are slightly burnt on the outside are among the worst foods that increase the risk for cancer.
There are a lot of websites that promote the idea that sugar “feeds” cancer. They suggest that eating foods with sugar makes cancer grow faster. As a result, some cancer patients avoid eating any sugar, and eliminating beneficial foods, such as fruits, that contain essential nutrients. However there is no conclusive research on human subjects to prove that sugar makes cancerous cells grow. Avoiding foods with processed sugar is a good idea in general, but eliminating foods with natural sugar won’t stop cancer cells from dividing. According to Mayo clinic, sugar doesn’t make cancer grow faster. All cells, including cancer cells, depend on blood sugar (glucose) for energy. But giving more sugar to cancer cells doesn’t speed their growth. Likewise, depriving cancer cells of sugar doesn’t slow their growth. The link between sugar and cancer is different – according to Canadian Cancer Society, eating lots of sugary foods are more likely to cause you to gain weight. Research shows that being overweight or obese increases your risk of cancer. This is because obesity may cause changes in hormone levels or insulin that might increase the risk of developing breast, colon or uterine cancer. Therefore limiting the amount of sugar in your diet is important. Diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can lead to overweight and obesity, which indirectly increases cancer risk over time.
Sugar can be found not only in obvious foods such as cookies, cakes, sodas, soft drinks and other sweets. Sugar can be found even in pasta sauce, salad dressing and canned vegetables. So when reading food labels, look for sugar listed as the first ingredient and be aware of hidden sugar names: fructose, lactose, sucrose, maltose, glucose, dextrose. Natural sugars such as molasses, honey and maple syrup contain beneficial antioxidants but those, too, should be consumed in moderation. If you tend to have sugar cravings, you may want to read my article 13 effective ways to quit sugar.
4. Fried food, French fries, potato chips and snack food
French fries, potato chips and other snacks may contain high levels of acrylamide, another carcinogenic substance that forms when foods are heated at high temperatures, such as during baking or frying. Acrylamide may be found in any food heated to a temperature above 250° F, but potato chips and French fries have been found to contain the highest levels among foods tested. Cooking methods such as frying, baking or roasting are more likely to produce acrylamide, while boiling, steaming, and microwaving appear less likely to do so. Longer cooking times and cooking at higher temperatures can increase the amount of acrylamide in foods further.
It must be mentioned that prolonged exposure to acrylamide has caused a range of tumors in animal tests (rats and mice), whereas most of the human studies published so far have failed to find any links between acrylamide and various types of cancers. However many believe it has a potential to be a human carcinogen because of those animal studies. If you’re still worried, the FDA and other public health groups say the best way is to follow the general advice on healthy eating, including limiting the consumption of fried and fatty foods.
Another components found in these type of foods that may increase the risk for cancer are trans fats or trans fatty acids. These are formed when manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats via a process called hydrogenation. And indeed, trans fats can be found in many foods including vegetable shortening, margarine, crackers, cereals, candies, baked goods, cookies, granola bars, chips, snack foods, salad dressings, fried foods, fats and many other processed foods. Trans fats cannot only increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, but the high intake of trans-fatty acids may have a direct association with prostate cancer in men, which ranks number one among the most common malignant cancers in American men. Chronic inflammation plays an important role to the development of prostate cancer and the association of trans-fats and chronic inflammation may explain the link between prostate cancer and trans-fatty acid ingestion. However, further studies and clinical trials are needed to establish this fact.
5. Excess alcohol
There is a strong scientific consensus of the link between alcohol drinking and several types of cancer. The more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time—the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer. According to Cancer Research UK and American Cancer society, alcohol can increase the risk of a number of cancers, such as mouth cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer and throat cancer. You’ve probably heard about other studies that have found that certain substances in red wine, such as resveratrol, have anti cancer properties, but like many thing in life moderation is the key. As part of its guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention, the American Cancer Society recommends that people who drink alcohol, limit their intake to no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink a day for women.