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Setting the record straight about cancer nutrition

While there is a plethora of knowledge out there today about cancer, there are still many questions about which foods may cause cancer and which foods may help prevent it. With so much information, it can be tricky to decipher the myths from the truths. We sat down with the nutrition team at our hospital near Phoenix to help set the record straight.

Q: Does sugar feed cancer?

A: There is no conclusive research that proves sugar makes cancerous cells grow. While it is true that cancer cells have a need for sugar as well as other nutrients, nearly every cell in the body has a need for glucose (a naturally occurring sugar).  If you were to completely avoid all sources of natural sugars found in grains, vegetables, fruits, milk and beans, you would starve healthy cells, which could result in malnutrition.

Experts recommend you decrease consumption of refined sugars found in foods like soda, candy and baked goods, and get your sugar intake from natural sources. Fruit is an excellent source of sugar, and contains many vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber which can enhance the immune system.

Read more about this topic.

Q: Does artificial sweetener cause cancer?

A: You may have heard that artificial sweeteners are the culprit for the increased incidence of cancer in the United States. In the 1970s, a series of studies showed a link between saccharin and bladder cancer in lab rats. However, according to the National Cancer Institute, the scientific evidence is unclear whether the artificial sweeteners cause cancer. It is recommended that people limit the amount of artificial sweeteners they consume, and practice moderation. Natural sweeteners like Stevia, Truvia and honey are healthier choices.

Q: Does eating processed meats cause cancer?

A: Processed meats are meats that have been preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives. This includes salami, hot dogs and sausage. A study found a correlation between eating processed meats and pancreatic cancer. When meats are smoked, they absorb tars that arise from the incomplete combustion process. The tars contain carcinogens that are chemically similar to tars in tobacco.

Although there is a correlation between eating processed foods and cancer, the FDA has not ruled processed meats as too dangerous to consume. Experts agree it’s best to limit consumption. The World Cancer Research Fund recommends eating no more than about 16 ounces of cooked red and/or processed meat per week. For reference, three ounces of cooked meat is roughly the size of a deck of cards.

Read more about this topic.

Q: Does eating grilled foods cause cancer?

A: It’s true that cooking meats at high temperatures over an open flame can produce two kinds of carcinogens: heterocyclic amines (HCA’s) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s). Consuming these carcinogens can increase your chance of developing colon and stomach cancer.  

Reducing the temperature at which you grill can produce substantially less HCA’s. Choose leaner cuts of meat, since less fat will limit the amount of smoke produced during grilling, and try to avoid eating charred pieces. Also, keep in mind that grilled fruits and vegetables don’t form HCA’s or PAH’s, so load up on these healthy alternatives.

The use of marinades and spice rubs can reduce the formation of HCA’s by up to 90 percent.  For meats that are difficult to marinate, try kneading in spices that contain antioxidants such as turmeric and black pepper to help block the formation of harmful chemicals.

Q: Does the alkaline diet help prevent cancer?

A: People who are proponents of the alkaline diet believe that you should eat food that matches the chemistry, or pH, of your blood. And, since blood is slightly alkaline, eating foods that cause your body to produce acid can pose serious health risks. When a person eats a high-acid diet, the theory is it makes your body more vulnerable to disease. On the flip side, eating an alkaline-friendly diet is purported to help protect you from disease, including cancer.

Although there is currently no evidence to support this, experts agree that the alkaline diet (which consists of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes with limited quantities of meat and dairy) is a traditionally healthy way to eat, whether or not alkalinity plays a role in disease prevention

Q: Are high protein diets safe to eat?

A: Due to the popularity of high-protein diets like Paleo, Atkins and Primal, research has been conducted to determine whether this type of diet affects cancer risk. A new study suggests that middle-aged people who ate a high-protein diet had an increased risk of developing cancer compared to those who ate low-protein. However, the protein source is important to note – animal protein posed more of a risk, while plant-based protein was somewhat safer.

More research is required. Until then, it’s best to practice moderation and eat a variety of foods, with the majority of your protein coming from lean meats and plant-based foods.

Q: Does juicing help fight cancer?

A: A diet high in fruits and vegetables has been shown to reduce cancer risk and improve overall health. Although juicing is a great way to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet, our nutritionists explain that it should not replace whole foods. According to the oncology nutrition team, your first five servings of vegetables and fruits should come from whole foods, not juice. If you’re meeting this five-a-day goal already, juicing is a great way to add more servings into an already healthy diet.

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