I get more questions about diet than anything else. People want to know if they should give up sugar, go paleo, fast, quit saturated fat or just eat whatever they want on the basis that it can’t make a whole lot of difference.
In a world where it’s now possible to make a living out of giving other people dietary advice it’s difficult to sort fact from fiction. Most of the ‘evidence’ is anecdotal; this person quit sugar and has never felt better; that person ‘went paleo’ and beat their allergies. There’s no question that some of these people have achieved what seems to be better health by changing the way they eat, but have they reduced their risk of cancer? And how will we know what the longer term impact of these diets is likely to be without experimenting on ourselves?
Well meaning people have sent me links to articles from Dr Mercola and David Avocado Wolf, along with contributions to a whole range of ‘natural health’ sites. My first reaction is always to google the author and to add the word ‘fraud’ to the search. What I find is not encouraging. Of course the conspiracy theorists then counter claim that these authors are being undermined by big pharma or food manufacturers with a vested interest. These claims are not without foundation. A recent, reputable article provided evidence that the sugar industry intentionally marketed saturated fat as the dietary bad guy in order to distract us from damaging findings about sugar:
There’s also reasonable and serious concern about the ethics involved in research. Much of it is sponsored by organisations with a vested interest in the outcome and you’ve got to wade through the academic language to read it, or rely upon someone else’s often inaccurate interpretation. What to do?
The best dietary advice I ever had came from my friend, Cat, who said, ‘You need to find out what works best for your body.’
It may well be that excluding certain types of foods has a big impact on your health. Someone close to me recently tried the FODMAP protocol with the support of a dietician and discovered a fructose intolerance. Yes, that means she can’t eat apples! Just about every healthy diet I’ve ever seen includes apples but for her they’re a disaster.
I’ve recently found a nutrition site that appears to be well researched and presents health information via clear, plain english videos:
But even this site has nothing about intermittent fasting, which I believe is helping me to avoid recurrence and manage my weight. There’s also a problem with sites like this: It’s easy to become so overwhelmed with all of the advice that you just throw your hands in the air and break out the tim tams.
For those interested in my personal opinion on how best to avoid cancer I’m going to give you a summary. I offer it with the following disclaimers:
- While I have done everything I can to verify my choices using research I allow that future research might disprove anything I’ve read so far. I also allow that I have no way to verify the authenticity of any research. At some point you just have to decide to trust it. Also, I’m not a doctor.
- What works for me may not work for you. The two best measures of a diet are how well you feel on a day to day basis (this is fairly easy to determine) and how well you are over time (much more difficult).
- Diet is a major part of staying well but it is not the only factor. Please also consider your stress levels, your environmental exposure to things that may have a negative impact on your health, the quality of your sleep, the amount and type of exercise you get and the quality of the relationships you have with other people. These matter too.
Eating to reduce the risk of cancer
So here’s my current best advice for reducing the future risk of cancer and staying well. I hope it helps you to make some positive changes.
- Eat more plants than anything else
A plant based diet consistently demonstrates a range of benefits to human health. Leafy greens are the only prebiotic proven to improve gut health and most of the food candidates for ensuring human health at a cellular level belong to this food group. Legumes show up as a major dietary component in every culture on earth that demonstrates unusual longevity. Fruits and vegetables are particularly important for forming healthy (non cancerous) cells, and for triggering the death of damaged (potentially cancerous) cells. Nuts and mushrooms are both returning impressive research results and most of us don’t eat enough of them. (Yes, I know fungi aren’t really plants but let’s put them in here anyway).
- Be wary of supplements
It may be that your dietary intake of a particular micro nutrient is inadequate. In most cases that’s easy to fix. Add a food containing it to your diet. There seems to be a very relaxed attitude to supplements with most people considering them to be safe, but many can be toxic if you take too much of them and many can interact with medications in dangerous ways. You also need to be careful if you’re approaching surgery because a lot of popular supplements (e.g. fish oil) can cause excess bleeding. It’s almost impossible to get too much of a micro nutrient from food so if you think you’re lacking anything, try googling ‘natural sources of …….’ and improving your diet. Always discuss supplements with your doctor and when you’re asked ‘are you on any medication?’ make sure you disclose any regular supplements. We should be treating these pills with the same caution we apply to pharmaceuticals. Your doctor may prescribe a supplement as part of your recovery (particularly vitamin D) and you should make sure these are taken according to the dosage instructions. More is not better.
- Reduce animal protein
I remain convinced that eating some animal protein each week is good for me, particularly for maintaining healthy levels of iron, B12 and essential amino acids. I’m also sure that I don’t need more that three or four serves a week. I’m also convinced that the profile of organically raised, grass fed meat is different and more nutritious than factory farmed and grain fed meat. There is research to support this view.
- Eat less food
Most of us still eat too much. Just eating less can have a positive impact on our health and survival. I suspect it’s actually healthy for us to be hungry some of the time but with the modern availability of food, most of us can reach for something the second we feel any hunger. A meal should leave you feeling pleasantly satisfied, not stuffed like a pillow. If you’ve been conditioned to eat everything on your plate then it’s time to recover from the notion that overeating is somehow virtuous.
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol
Sorry to say that the evidence for alcohol as a category one carcinogen is overwhelming. If you decide to drink then there is some evidence that resveratrol in red wine may help to reduce its carcinogenic impact, but you’d be better off eating red grapes or including some red wine vinegar in your diet and avoiding the wine.
- Pay attention to your body
You may want to try some kind of protocol to determine if you have any food intolerances or you might prefer to just observe how you react to different foods. Either way it’s important to notice how you feel, and how your body reacts, after different types of food. Your bowels are a good indication of gut health and if you’re not seeing at least one well formed bowel movement every day your body is trying to tell you something. Same goes for bad breath, sallow skin, hives and rashes, acne and other physical symptoms. That’s not to say that all of these things are always caused by diet, but they may be. It’s also important to recognise that we are complex organisms and there are many different things affecting our body, including hormone levels, underlying health, regular medication and even the weather. I’ve met many people eating highly restrictive diets because they are certain they’ve had a reaction to something, once, a long time ago. A lot of self-diagnosed food intolerances aren’t real.
- Fast regularly
The evidence for fasting having significant health benefits is, I think, compelling. It can lower human growth hormone (typically high in those at risk of cancer) and trigger cell autophagy (the body’s natural process for cleaning up damaged cells). I have two fast days each week where I eat only 500 calories as an evening meal. Apart from the milk in my morning coffee that’s all I have all day. I’ve also achieved a healthy weight using this method. Don’t fast without talking to your doctor first. It’s unsuitable for some people, particularly those on regular medication.
- Drink more water
It’s critical to the optimal function of your body and you can raise low blood pressure within minutes just by drinking water. This is an excellent demonstration of how important it is to stay well hydrated. I often see sites that say we are inclined to confuse thirst with hunger, but I think this misses the point. Our bodies aren’t mistaken. There’s really no difference between hunger and thirst because a lot of our moisture comes from our food. Our ancient ancestors didn’t carry drink bottles and probably got a lot of their moisture from food. This is another reason to eat fresh fruit and vegetables (they have a high water content) and to have a big drink of water before you eat a meal.
- Prepare most of your meals from scratch using whole foods
Takeaway and eating out are both fine from time to time (and may well fall under stress reduction if you just can’t manage cooking), but if they’re a regular part of your week it’s likely you’re eating far too much sugar, saturated fat and salt. There’s also a much higher risk of overeating because we tend to eat the serving rather than paying attention to our appetites. My preference is to use organic ingredients at home whenever I can and to prepare them fairly simply. I also avoid most processed foods. The additives in processed foods appear to have a negative impact on the human gut. Processed foods are also typically higher in sugar and saturated fat than home cooked meals.
- Don’t Panic!
I sometimes wonder how much damage we do to ourselves with food anxiety. On the one hand, it’s great to feel like we’re making a difference to our health by eating well. On the other hand, we can quickly descend into guilt and worry after a weekend pizza or a few hours on a nutrition website. I think food, and sharing food with friends and family, should be one of the great joys of our life.
By paying attention to how I feel and how my body reacts to certain foods I’ve significantly reduced sugar and gluten in my diet and I eat well most of the time. I also enjoy eating out, eating takeaway, eating soft cheese and eating chocolate. Sometimes. Much less often than I used to. I’m still making improvements to my diet on a regular basis and doing some online research from time to time to see if there’s anything else I might add or subtract that will make a difference, but I’m not obsessive.
I hope this short summary is useful. My final advice is to take a long view when it comes to fashionable diets. They have always been around. They will always be around. Very few of them have stood the test of time and I see no reason to expect that will change. Use one of them if it helps you to eat well but don’t feel pressured. The truth is that we still don’t know nearly enough about how the human body interacts with what we eat, but we do know that eating well can make a big difference to our health, so let’s just focus on that.