21 February 2014

My anarchic diet: anti-cancer eating

I walked through the supermarket the other day and the shelves were full of brightly packaged, minimally nutritious cardboard loaded up with oil and sugar. It was a good feeling to know that the things I wanted to buy there were few, and pretty close to the way they were when they grew (can I include the dark chocolate in that category?). 

Thank goodness for our garden!

For the last three weeks or so I've been eating quite differently. Before that I had what to most people looks like a really healthy diet. Except now I realise it wasn't. My motivation to gorge on vegetables and ditch the white flour and sugar completely? Death by cancer. I'll come back to death at the end. Where it should be, after a long, healthy life.

Here's a link to a recent report stating that the World Health Organisation is expecting a tidal wave of cancer soon. Just in case you imagine I'm being being needlessly paranoid.

When the most recent deathly blow struck in my circle of friends, it occurred to me that when people get cancer they often make lifestyle changes. I thought I'd find out what they were and make them now. I did so, and I thought you might like to know what they are.

1. diet
2. exercise (I won't comment on this; suffice to say this remains my year of walking, which is likely to become my life of walking)
3. meditation/stress relief. I wrote about this in my last post, and I'll write more on it in future, I'm sure.

There's a lot of alternative therapies out there for cancer and quite frankly I think they're mostly offered by charlatans. I've cast my science-trained brain over what I'm doing - not in the minutest detail, I'll admit, but nothing I read clashed with anything I know - and there seems to be enough evidence for me to take the plunge.

Short-as-possible science-y bit about how tumours form
Most of us regularly have tiny tumours inside us as a result of our normal cell division gone a bit wrong. A healthy immune system kills them off while they're no bigger than a pin head. Sometimes the immune system slips up, though.

They still need to obtain oxygen and food to grow beyond pin head size, and the only way to do that is to get a blood supply. To do that they trigger our body's process of inflammation. You know what inflammation looks like - when you cut or bang yourself this same process kicks off, the redness reflecting the blood and immune cells being sent to the area. Inflammation is absolutely needed to repair tissues. Cancer cells, however, hijack that process. They make a nasty substance that disarms the arriving immune cells so they don't even try to fight the tumour. They enjoy the uncluttered delivery of nutrients from the extra blood.

I need to point out here that studies show that people with generally higher levels of inflammation throughout their bodies, as measured in their blood, have much faster cancer progression.

The cancer cells also send out a signal that forces blood vessels to approach them and sprout new branches. Voila, a tumour with an established network of blood vessels. Now it can really get growing.

Now it needs lots of glucose to fuel it. Tumours are glucose-greedy, which is why the PET scans commonly used to spot cancer simply measure where most of the body's glucose is being consumed.

How to interrupt this process
Firstly, I write from the point of view of someone who doesn't have cancer. I want my body to knock back those pin-sized tumours every time. If I had an established tumour, I'd have it cut out.

For me now, the biggest changes are as follows:

1. Keep my blood sugar low and steady. Eating white flour and sugar - yes, even Granny's scones and pancakes - raises our blood glucose more rapidly than anything that existed when humans were evolving (except maybe honey and nectar, but these would have been miniscule parts of the diet). Remember cancer feeds on glucose. In a double whammy, our bodies respond to high glucose levels by making insulin and IGF (insulin-like growth factors), and these hormones promote inflammation.

(Note here that recent published studies have shown that people with blood sugars in the upper range of normal are more likely to develop dementia, and that sugar is at least as great a heart disease risk as saturated fat.)

Action: eat oats with no added sugar, bread made from 100% wholemeal flour (most shop grain breads use white flour and chuck some colour and a few grains in), no biscuits, cake etc. I do indulge in a couple of squares of 72% dark chocolate after dinner. I eat several pieces of fruit a day, which is fine because not only is fruit laden with nutrients, its sugar (fructose) is bound up with fibre, which slows down the sugar release, and water, which makes me full before I eat too much. This is slow-carb eating. Lentils, beans etc are also great slow-release carbohydrates (with some protein for good measure). Brown and basmati rice are slow-release carbohydrates, as are root vegetables apart from potatoes. White pasta: not for me, thanks.

2. Watch my fats. Not so much the amount, but the type.

In the last half century there's been an explosion of something else our bodies previously knew nothing about: vegetable oils. Olive oil, of course, is ancient, and unsurprisingly it's really good for you. It's one of the few oils that doesn't have much omega 6 in it. There are three omegas - 3, 6 and 9. Olive oil has the 9. Fish oil has the 3. Most vegetable oils have mainly omega 6. Ancient diets had a close balance between 3 and 6, but our enormous intake of vegetable oils mean we generally get at least 20 times more 6 than 3! Given that this stuff gets turned mainly into our cell walls, that's a big deal, because omega 3 walls are way, way better than omega 6 oils.

Too much omega 6 promotes inflammation. You remember that baddie.

Food summary:
- I cook with olive oil, but this means using low frying temperatures, because it has a low smoke point, and smoking fat is bad news (carcinogenic). I also use saturated fats like coconut oil and butter in moderation (whereas the omegas 3, 6 and 9 are what make up unsaturated fats). For high heat frying I use rice bran oil, which isn't ideal but I don't have an alternative at present.
- I eat grass fed organic red meat (thank you Wholly Cow) and milk, because (in the words of Gareth Morgan) you are what you eat eats. These days many animals are fed grain instead of grass (and insects etc for chickens); their meat, milk and eggs are correspondingly high in omega 6 fatty acids. Studies show that increasing the omega 3 content of their diet - either through feeding them grass (quaint idea in some countries, I know) or flax seeds - increases the omega 3 levels in the people who eat their meat and drink their milk. I give my hens flax seed and greens to enrich their eggs.
- no bought biscuits or crackers. Almost every baked good from the supermarket contains trans fats. These are baddies.
- we never eat rancid fat. Dark yellow stuff on the outside of butter, oils that are old or exposed to light - bad stuff. And margarine never crosses our doorstep - the omega 6 content lets it down.
- ground flaxseed is easy to add to things like porridge and smoothies. It's delicious and cheap, and contains lots of omega 3 oils. I bought a second hand coffee grinder to grind the seed, and store it in the fridge.
- we eat fish and oily fish.
- this is a slightly separate subject, but processed meats (ham, bacon, salami, sausages) are clearly linked to bowel cancer. A sad but well-established fact.

3. Lots of fruit and vegetables
Many fruits and vegetables have substances in them that interfere with the tumour development pathway, either at the immune system level, by blocking the formation of blood vessels or causing the cancer cells to commit suicide (which our healthy cells naturally do, but cancer cells remain immortal). Lots of vegetables are needed, cooked and raw, at lunch and dinner. Load your plate. A jam sandwich won't suffice.

Food summary: Every vegetable is good, but the following have been shown to be particularly anti-cancer: mushrooms, berries, turmeric, herbs, tomatoes, the garlic/onion family, colourful fruits and vegetables, cruciform vegetables like broccoli and cabbage. Green tea (sencha, matcha, gyokuro) has something in it that interferes with the creation of new blood vessels. Ginger has a similar effect, and a few slices of root ginger soaked in just-boiled water for 10 minutes makes a delicious infusion. Strain before drinking.

Phase 1 of yesterday's lunch - kale and zucchini. Stir frying vegetables in olive oil
and garlic makes them taste so much better! I love it with a bit of salt and pepper,
and some shavings of parmesan cheese.

4. Avoid chronic inflammation. We know how cancer loves to dance with inflammation. Also, when part of the body has to continually heal itself, there are more cell divisions, which increases the chance that one will go wrong and produce cancerous cells.  That's also why smokers get cancer - their lungs are always under attack and having to heal. That's also why some viruses are linked with cancer (hepatitis and liver cancer, HPV virus and cervical cancer).

Action: keep away from exhaust fumes, vapours, smoke and generally inhaling small particles. I don't even need to mention smoking, I know. (On that note, I hardly ever drink alcohol so I've made no changes there, but there are seven cancers absolutely known to be linked with alcohol - see here for more.)

So there you go, I've just blown away the easy, fast food Western diet, haven't I? It takes more time and effort, and possibly more money, although I leave a heck of a lot of stuff on supermarket shelves that others don't, so I'm not sure about the money bit.

What I haven't blown away is the enjoyment of food and a full belly. I feel more satisfied eating this way and I love what I eat. It helps that I enjoy cooking and exploring new recipes, as well as gardening.

My family hasn't completely caught on, especially the children. I'm working on it.

Weight loss: it's inevitable on this kind of diet, I think. I was already lean, and I've got leaner, to the point where I'm going to have to beef my calories up to stop getting too bony. Excess weight makes you more prone to cancer, so losing a bit is no bad thing for many people.

Yes I will eat cake at birthdays!

Regarding the deaths
In the last four years I've been to three funerals, each in February, and each as a result of cancer. I'm 40. In two of them the victims were under 50. In two of them they were mother and daughter. In that time there were several other people I knew or knew of who also had these tragic death celebrations held in their honour.

Watching my once vivacious friend die slowly and fairly gruesomely was probably the saddest thing I've seen. (I've lived a sheltered life, I know. No television helps.) The frequency of cancer deaths makes me not only sad, but terrified! I can't even describe how much I don't want my family to watch me die like that, or for me to watch any of them. That thought really takes the shine of that chocolate cake, the french bread and the icecream. I really don't feel I'm missing out.

Further reading:
1. Anticancer: a new way of life by Dr David Servan-Schreiber
2. Appetite for Destruction by Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons (even if you don't usually like Gareth Morgan, I loved this book and learnt a lot - even though I thought I already knew a lot about nutrition)
3. This recent article on cancer prevention.


  1. Hello, not sure how I found my way to your blog, but I found this a very thoughtful and though-provoking article. I've realised I'm much better at growing food, than I am at remembering to eat healthily! Your article has given me a nudge, so thank you. Now, how to get the flaxseed past the children....?!

    1. Hi, thanks for that! I have been worried that it's far too long. Flaxseed 'disappears' into fruity milkshakes/smoothies, and breakfast cereals (although I use the word cereal loosely, I am appalled by that aisle in the supermarket). But I don't succeed in getting a huge amount of good stuff into my children.
      Soon I am going to post on gardening to fuel my vege requirements, keep an eye out!


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