In the assessment of the state of health of the population, eating habits are of special interest. Obviously, the habits that favour health reinforce well-being and contribute
to disease prevention, while an unhealthy diet, the absence of physical activity,
and the consumption of alcohol and tobacco constitute the main factors of risk
for non-transmissible diseases. A balanced diet is therefore essential for maintaining
a good state of health, and so is a proper approach to food. When these two conditions are missing, on the one hand we risk contracting pathologies of various types
and, on the other, negatively modifying our attitude toward food.
Diet and cancer
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), over 30% of tumours derive directly from the diet. Thus, health is acquired above all at the dining table by learning the rules for healthy eating from childhood. They are fundamental for maintaining a good quality of life and ageing well. With regard to the mechanisms responsible for the diet-to-tumours relationship, it has been suggested that foods can play a preventive role or can foster the development of a neoplasia, a very widely diffused pathology that can lead to very grave consequences, and is therefore monitored with particular attention,.
Nutritional factors that favour or cause cancer
After tobacco smoking and consumption of alcohol, overweight and obesity seem to be the most important factors responsible for the onset of various tumours (oesophagus, colon, rectum, liver, pancreas, uterus, breast, kidney and prostate); the carcinogenic effect is apparently linked to the excessive intake of proteins of animal origins and lipids, above all saturated fatty acids. The carcinogenic substances that are consumed with food can be naturally present in the foods, can originate in the food containers or the packaging materials, the environment or the conservation processes (for example, salt, nitrosamines, alimentary additives, etc.). Other carcinogenic substances can form, instead, during cooking, especially, for example, during cooking on a grill or over a charcoal fire of high protein foods such as meat and fish, or during frying if the smoking point of the oil is exceeded.
Nutritional factors that block or protect against cancer
Anticarcinogenic nutritional factors are substances found in foods of vegetal origin (vitamins A, C, E, fibre and antioxidants) that play an important role in cancer prevention. They protect against free radicals, interfere with the carcinogenic substance and suppress the tumoural manifestation in cells. Habitual consumption of some foods of vegetal origin helps prevent cancer, activating protective actions that limit obesity because they are foods with reduced energetic density. They also contain many useful substances to reduce the risk of neoplasia. The list below indicates a few examples.
- vegetables of the family known as Cruciferae or Brassicaceae (which includes cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc.) contain many anticarcinogenic substances;
- legumes, especially soya, are rich in phytoestrogens, which seem to inhibit the growth of tumour cells;
- tomatoes contain lycopene, a potent antioxidant that protects us from cancer. When tomatoes are cooked to make a sauce, there is as much as five times the amount of lycopene, because the heat of cooking breaks down the cell walls of the tomatoes, releasing all the lycopene they contain and making it completely absorbable by the digestive apparatus;
- currants and red berries contain anthocyanins, natural pigments with an extraordinary antioxidant power that inhibits particular proteins responsible for some forms of tumours;
- citrus fruit contains vitamin C, polyphenols and terpenes that block the growth of cancer cells and facilitate the processes to detoxify the body from carcinogenic substances. Red oranges also contain many anthocyanins.
The Mediterranean diet
Today, around the world, the traditional Mediterranean diet is considered one of the most efficacious to maintain good health. The Mediterranean diet is synonymous with perfect balance and the proper proportion among the various nutrients: proteins 15%, carbohydrates 60% and lipids 25%. This diet is based on consumption of bread, pasta, olive oil, moderate use of protein especially of animal origin, with abundant fruit and vegetables, at least five mixed portions per day.
The European Code Against Cancer
- Do not smoke. If you smoke, stop smoking. If you are not able to stop, do not smoke in the presence of others.
- Avoid obesity.
- Engage in intense physical activity every day.
- Consume at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Limit consumption of foods containing fats of animal origin.
- If you drink alcoholic beverages (beer or wine), limit their consumption.
- Avoid excess exposition to the sun. It is very important to protect children and adolescents.
- Protect yourself against known cancer-causing substances, including radiations, by following health and safety instructions.
- Consult your physician if you note a swelling, a lesion that does not heal, a mole that changes form, colour or size, or in any case, any anomalous haemorrhage.
- From the age of 25, women should participate in programmes for early diagnosis of cervical cancer.
- From the age of 50, women should participate in programmes for early diagnosis of breast cancer.
- From the age of 50, men and women should participate in programmes for early diagnosis of colon and rectum tumours.
- Participate in vaccination programmes against hepatitis type B.
Nitrosamines: organic compounds obtained by reaction of nitrites and amines. In fact, the nitrites contained in some foods (cold cuts, hams and canned meat) react to the amines in the stomach and produce nitroamines, which are potentially carcinogenic.
Smoking point: the suitability of different types of fats for frying is assessed on the basis of their smoking point, a parameter that indicates the maximum tolerable temperature for a given oil or fat. When this threshold is surpassed – evident, from a practical point of view, because the fatty substance begins to release smoke – the product begins to deteriorate with the appearance of toxic substances. Oils with a high smoking point are ideal for frying.
Free radicals: molecules containing an unpaired electron in the external orbit. This characteristic makes them highly reactive and damaging for the cells of the organism. They act like carcinogenic factors and are responsible for irreversible damages to cellular components and DNA.
How Much Do You Know…?
Anticarcinogenic nutritional factors are substances that play an important role in cancer prevention because:
Moderate physical activity contributes to the psychological and physical well-being of the person, and should always be accompanied by a healthy diet. Foods rich in proteins of animal origin and saturated fats should be avoided.