Cancer is a disease that results from unchecked growth of cells in humans. Cells develop abnormally when their DNA (the main driver of cells in our body) is damaged or mutated due to inherited or environmental factors. The exact cause -- why a person gets cancer -- is hard to pinpoint. However, as individuals we can make certain lifestyle choices to decrease our potential risk. The number one avoidable risk factor, by far, is tobacco which accounts for a staggering 21% of all cancer deaths worldwide. Other risk factors include poor dietary habits, obesity and an inactive lifestyle.
The economic conundrum
India is a land of diverse peoples and cultures with palates and dietary preferences that are even more varied. The last two decades delivered an economic boom with rapid urbanisation and an increase in disposable income, heralding a sea change in dietary and lifestyle habits. Processed eatables, including so-called "junk foods", are making inroads into people's houses and appetites, along with an increase in tobacco and alcohol consumption. This, coupled with increasingly sedentary lifestyles and a rise in obesity can lead to an explosion of various non-communicable diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Studies pointing to particular foods or food groups being carcinogenic must be taken with a grain of salt... The same lesson applies to the other side of the argument.
Eat this not that
The advent of the internet has been an information boon (how was homework ever done before Wikipedia?), but the web is also a source of great misinformation and conjecture. We are told to stock up on "superfoods" that can help prevent or fight cancer while avoiding all kinds of "cancer causing foods". The reality, just like cancer, is much more complex. Studies pointing to particular foods or food groups being carcinogenic must be taken with a grain of salt -- with the devil being in the details. For example, the World Health Organization recently classified processed meats (sausages, hot dogs, bacon) as possible carcinogens and stated that red meat could "probably" increase one's risk for cancer (mainly colorectal, but associations were also seen for pancreatic and prostate cancer). There was a resulting uproar with scary headlines splashed all over the world. However on detailed analysis, the guidelines did not tell people to stop eating processed meats, but merely stated that reducing consumption can decrease the risk of colorectal cancer.
The same lesson applies to the other side of the argument. There are no miracle foods out there that will definitely prevent cancer, in spite of what "Dr. Google" might tell you. Remember the saying that relates to life in general and cancer in specific: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
A case in point is the story of beta-carotene, an antioxidant that was thought to decrease the risk of cancer. Naturally present in many fruits and vegetables, beta-carotene gives vegetables, like carrots, their colour. Because of its antioxidant properties, high dose beta-carotene supplements were given to smokers in an effort to reduce their risk of cancer as a part of two large studies, one in the United States and one in Finland. Contrary to belief, instead of reducing the risk, scientists found that people who took these high doses of beta carotene had a significantly higher risk for cancer than those on placebo.
If you truly want to decrease your risk, focus on the mundane, not the "sexy" solutions: there is no substitute for weight loss, exercise and a well balanced diet.
Turmeric (main active ingredient is curcumin), a widely used spice in the Indian diet, has demonstrated activity against cancer cells in the laboratory. Here lies the challenge: cancer cells can be killed or growth stopped by a wide range of compounds in a laboratory setting; however killing cancer cells in the human body is very challenging as the cells acquire different mutations that make them resistant to therapy. By all means, continue to use turmeric as an additive in cooking as it has anti-inflammatory effects with proven benefit to your overall health. However we do not have scientific evidence that consuming large doses of turmeric can prevent cancer in humans. More definitive research is required.
Moral of the story: Although the idea is tantalising, there is no "superfood" that will decrease your risk of cancer, and in some instances, high doses of antioxidants may be harmful rather than helpful to your health. If you truly want to decrease your risk, focus on the mundane, not the "sexy" solutions: there is no substitute for weight loss, exercise and a well balanced diet.
A healthy diet in the Indian context
The American Cancer Society (ACS) guidelines for a healthy diet mimic what is easily achievable as a part of an Indian diet. Recommendations emphasise plant-based foods with at least two-and-a-half cups of vegetable and fruits daily while limiting the intake of red meat (pork, lamb) or processed meats (hot dogs, sausages).
The "good" news is that traditional Indian diets already incorporate the elements that the ACS recommends, a plant-based diet that is fibre rich. Dietary fibre has been linked to a lower risk of some types of cancer, especially colorectal cancer.
The "bad" part is that the Indian diet is also overrun with food and snacks that are low in fibre and high in carbohydrate and fat: our samosas, sweets (jalebi, halwa), bhaturas, naans, parathas, just to name a few.
[H]ead back in time to our roots, and experiment with ancient whole grains like jowar (millet), ragi (finger millet), bajra (pearl millet) to name a few.
The "ugly" part is that over the past few decades, processed food has become a staple in the Indian diet. This is a cause of great concern for our children's health. TV, billboards, and the internet have inundated our households with ads for calorie bombs like pizza, fries and sugary drinks. This, along with a sedentary lifestyle, is a recipe for disaster.
It is time to rethink our priorities. Kick-start a healthy lifestyle with diet change and regular exercise. It is essential to persevere rather than succumb to a quick food fad or eating more of the so-called "superfoods". Eliminate refined grains, and head back in time to our roots, and experiment with ancient whole grains like jowar (millet), ragi (finger millet), bajra (pearl millet) to name a few.
Combining the modern with the traditional can result in delectable results as is evidenced by the recipe below for ragi pancakes. Bon appetit, mes amis!!
½ cup ragi (finger millet) flour
½ cup buckwheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
Cinnamon to taste
1 grated apple
¼ to ½ cup milk
Add the dry ingredients first.
Then add the grated apple and egg.
Finally add milk slowly until you get dropping consistency.
Rest the batter for 10 minutes, till it thickens.
Add more milk or water till you get the desired consistency.
Cook in a lightly greased pan.
* Recipe courtesy Swati Pant
Stay tuned for the next article in the series: How to eat healthy during cancer therapy.
Also see on HuffPost: