The incidence of cancer globally has increased in just ten years from 14 million in 2009 to 17 million in 2019. Over the next twenty years, it is expected to hit 30 million a year.
These are frightening figures and are consistent with the equally frightening rise in obesity that is currently taking place.
Are the two linked? The answer is yes, without doubt. Many studies have looked at the association between obesity and cancer, and the results are quite conclusive – our weight has a major influence on whether or not we get this dreadful disease. However, it’s not just about weight. The types of food we eat are also a factor.
Let’s take a closer look, starting with the former:
An excess of fat causes our bodies to produce proteins and hormones that adversely influence the way our cells work – this is a known cause of a number of diseases – just one of which is cancer. It’s thought that about 20 percent of cancers can be attributed to obesity. This is a quite startling figure and should be enough to make anyone who is overweight sit up and pay serious attention.
The types of cancer caused by obesity include those of the oesophagus, gallbladder, womb, breast, bowel, kidney, liver, pancreas, oesophagus, thyroid and stomach. Of these, bowel and breast cancer are most common, while gallbladder, pancreatic and oesophageal cancer are among the most difficult to treat.
Obesity is also known to affect the body’s levels of sex hormones, oestrogen in particular. It affects insulin as well – the body’s production of this increases in proportion to the amount of excess fat it is carrying. As hormones can cause body cells to grow and multiply, a surfeit of certain types of them can cause cancer. This is especially the case with breast cancer.
All-in-all, obesity is the second biggest cause of cancer after smoking.
The types of meat we are talking about here are red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork; and processed meat, such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages, tinned meat, salami, corned beef, beef jerky and ham.
While there is no definitive proof that eating meat causes cancer, it is thought to be possible when people eat abnormal amounts of it. For example, eat a 12 ounce steak every night for a number of years and you may well end up with bowel cancer. A more likely cause though, is cooking it at high temperatures as when grilling or barbecuing. This is known to create dangerous chemicals that can cause cancer. Note that there is no evidence to suggest white meat (chicken and fish) increase the risk of getting cancer.
The situation is different with the various types of processed meats. The World Health Organization (WHO) states quite clearly that they do cause cancer. A recent report said 50 grams of processed meat a day – less than two slices of bacon – increases the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 15 percent.
The cause is the chemicals used to process and preserve the meats. Two such are nitrites and nitrates which act as preservatives by preventing the growth of harmful bacteria. They also add a salty flavour and improve the look of the meat products by giving them a pinkish-red color. It is thought the body converts nitrites into a group of cancer-causing chemicals known as N-nitroso compounds.
However, as with red meat, the danger of eating processed meat has to be kept in proportion. The occasional bacon sandwich or hot dog is not going to hurt anyone – eat them every day though and they may well do!
An integral part of a person’s diet is the liquid they drink. And many people drink a lot of alcohol. And the more alcohol they drink, the greater their risk of getting cancer. There is no debate about this – it’s fact. These are, typically, cancers of the throat, mouth, bowel, breast, liver, oesophagus and larynx.
When you drink alcohol, your body converts it into a chemical called acetaldehyde. This can cause cancer by damaging DNA, and also by preventing the body repairing the damage. Furthermore, alcohol makes the body produce excess amounts of certain hormones. These tell the body’s cells when to divide, amongst other things, and so increase the chances of cancer developing.
Yet another way alcohol can cause cancer is by damaging cells in the liver. Too much damage here results in a disease known as Cirrhosis which increases the likelihood of developing cancer of the liver. Note that drinking alcohol and smoking vastly increases the chances of getting cancer. This is because alcohol makes tissues in the mouth and throat more likely to absorb the cancer-causing compounds found in tobacco smoke.
The message should be clear then. If you want to minimize the chances of getting cancer, your intake of alcohol must be very low. Actually, we suggest you cut it out of your life completely. It may be a short one if you don’t!
Foods That Reduce the Risk of Cancer
Eating foods rich in fiber is known to reduce the risk of getting bowel cancer. One of the ways fiber does this is by helping the passage of food through our bowels. The quicker it happens, the less time the inner lining of the bowel is in contact with any harmful chemicals in the food. For example, chemicals such as those released when we consume alcohol and processed meats.
As a result, there’s less chance of them being able to cause damage that could lead to cancer. Approximately 15 percent of bowel cancer cases are linked to a diet low in fiber. This is one good reason to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Not only are they rich in fiber, they contain a variety of nutrients that help prevent many other different types of cancers developing – lung, throat and mouth cancer in particular.
Physical activity has a preventative effect on cancer as well. Being active helps to control levels of inflammation in the bowel which, if allowed to be, can be the cause of cellular damage that leads to cancer.