Nutritional underpinnings of cancer in Western and Westernizing nations

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120717Joneswesternization.JPGBy Desiree Jones, Ph.D.

Can our nutritional choices measurably help prevent certain cancers?

Over the last three decades, researchers have gathered substantial evidence to answer that question with a definite "Yes." 

Different types of cancer are dominant in different parts of the world. However, one glance at the map, regarding estimated breast cancer incidence worldwide, indicates clearly that developed areas of the world (North America, Western Europe, Australia, and parts of South America) bear the brunt of certain cancers, like breast

Ironically, research also indicates that cancers like prostate, colon and pancreatic are predominant in those parts of the world as well. 

Further, data suggest that people who migrate from developing to developed nations experience a dramatic increase in rates of chronic diseases, including cancer, after just one generation in the adopted country. 

Why is this?  

Walter Willett, M.D., chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health has spent nearly a lifetime investigating the relationship between nutrition and chronic diseases.

Willett concludes that, "The large differences in cancer rates among countries, striking changes in these rates among migrating populations, and rapid changes over time within countries indicate that some aspect of lifestyle or environment is largely responsible for the common cancers in Western countries." 

Today, Willett's conclusion is seconded not only by variations in international cancer rates and migrant studies, but also - most importantly - by evidence from large, prospective studies.

Diet, nutrition and avoidable cancer

In another article, Willett states that about 32% of cancers are avoidable by changes in diet. Other researchers support that estimate.

Additionally, it's estimated that 50% of breast cancer deaths, 70% of colon cancer deaths and nearly 75% of prostate cancer deaths may be avoided by dietary change. 

Applying what we know to accelerate cancer prevention and recurrence

While the above statistics from scientific studies are promising, the fact remains that the ordinary person and the average cancer survivor struggle to incorporate meaningful dietary change into their lives. 

Nutritional studies often appear to contradict each other, and competing commercial interests often make this task all the more difficult.

Now, what if, over the next few months, we could provide simple action steps that translate solid science into practice? 

That is exactly what we plan to do with our new, upcoming series of blogs and podcasts entitled, "From Research to Table." This series will cover what scientific research has taught us about choosing the ideal foods to help improve our chances of preventing not only certain cancers, but also common chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. 

We will cover everything from the ideal carbohydrates to the ideal fats and proteins, and much more in between.

Is doing so worth it?
In medicine, we learn that, "A disturbed biochemistry is always the antecedent to (or comes before) observed pathology." This means that disease takes time to develop, and before it is diagnosed on an abnormal test report, a window of time usually exists in which we may be able to prevent it through correct nutritional and behavioral choices.

The above irrefutable medical axiom should be all we need to spur us on to adopt strategies that can substantially improve our potential for health and wellness. 

References and further resources
Willett, W. Diet and Cancer. The Oncologist 2000; vol. 5 no. 5: 393-404.
Willett, W. Diet, Nutrition, and Avoidable Cancer. Envt. Health Persp. 1995;103 (Suppl 8): 165-170
American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR): 30 Years of Cancer Prevention - Research Highlights (Downloadable pdf):
AICR - Diet and Cancer Report
International Agency for Research on Cancer: Factsheet


Really good and informative piece and reminder to all of us of the importance of nutritional and lifestyle choices. Public policy solutions and changing behaviour is of course the hard part.

I would love to know when this blog is going to start. I have always been interested in the affect diet has on health.

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