It struck me very early on when writing this blog on nutrition and cancer that I had stepped into a virtual minefield; a field sown in the shifting sands of informed opinion that is littered with the bones of once-considered truths that have since been abandoned by dieticians in the light of new and often apparently conflicting evidence. Clinical research on nutrition and cancer prevention is regrettably sparse and is sadly lacking in trial depth in comparison to similar research and trials on drugs for a cancer cure. I wondered why this should be and invited Dr. Ian Hampson of the Institute of Cancer Sciences at the University of Manchester to discuss this anomaly. This is his illuminating reply:
Diet is one of many environmental factors that combine with the genetic hand we have been dealt to promote the development of cancer. The problem with nutrition and diet, however, is that we keep getting it wrong.
We are now beginning to appreciate that early foetal or newborn dietary programming must be taken into account, (see link to the US National Library of Medicine below). It seems that the diet to which we are exposed in early life, and even in the womb, fixes the goalposts for what our bodies regard as normal. Our response to nutrients in early life can therefore influence how we will respond to these in later life. This in turn determines our susceptibility to many cancers and, indeed, to a whole range of diseases. Superimpose this on the worldwide differences in youth and adult lifestyles, diet, exercise and ethnicity and you have created a complex equation, which probably explains why there are so many conflicting studies and calls for further research. It also explains why the success of clinical trials that embrace all parts of this equation would be impossible within a reasonable human timeframe, ethnic spectrum and realistic budget.
Our newfound appreciation of the impact of early foetal and newborn nutrition and diet on our susceptibility to cancer and other diseases in later life does however open up the possibility of some disease preventive control in the future by the administration of prenatal or postnatal dietary supplements. But that calls for yet further research!
Meanwhile, eat a diet which is abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and olive oil. Choose fish and poultry, lean sources of protein, rather than red meat, which contains more saturated fat. This is what is known as the Mediterranean diet. Also observe moderation in all things! Even exercise – too much is actually bad for you!
I was interested to read Dr Hampson's Mediterranean diet recommendation in his final paragraph. The 'Mediterranean diet' has recently been pronounced as beneficial, not only in risk reduction of a growing number of cancers such as uterine cancer, (see my blog 12), but is also associated with good general health, a healthy heart and weight control or obesity - itself a potential cause of some 22 different cancers according to studies published in The Lancet, including liver, colon, ovarian, breast and prostate cancers, (see my blog 3).
Dr Ian Hampson,
Reader in Viral Oncology,
University of Manchester