Diet, Cancer and You

You’re having a dream. In it, you’re in the lunch line at a fast-food restaurant, anticipating a tasty burger, fries and soft drink. Part of you feels a bit guilty because you had junk food just last week, but you have to be at an early afternoon meeting and road construction tied up traffic. There’s less than an hour till the meeting, you’re hungry, and this place happens to be convenient. This rationalization turns the volume down on the guilt. You feel justified.

Suddenly, you feel a tap on the shoulder. As you turn, the restaurant vanishes and you find yourself in a doctor’s office facing a woman in white coat with a stethoscope around her neck. She looks very serious as she says in a scolding tone, “What were you doing in that line? I told you that poor diet is linked to over 80,000 new cancer cases annually. Do you want to get cancer?” The guilt returns, the dream ends.

Poor diet and cancer

It’s no dream. In fact, it’s a national nightmare, as we learn from a May, 2019 study titled “Preventable Cancer Burden Associated with Poor Diet in the United States.”[i] The research team gathered data on U.S. adult dietary intake from 2013-16, and government cancer statistics for the year 2015. They found that 5.2% of new cancer cases in 2015 were attributable to poor nutrition, either directly or through obesity-related health vulnerabilities.  

The study examined specific dietary patterns: low intake of vegetables, fruits and whole grains; and high intake of processed meats, red meats, and sugary beverages/soda. The authors wrote:

By diet, low consumption of whole grains…and dairy products…and high intake of processed meats…contributed to the highest burden. Men, middle-aged…and racial/ethnic minorities…had the highest proportion of diet-associated cancer burden than other age, sex, race/ethnicity groups.

Of all types of cancer, this study found that colorectal cancers had the largest proportion of diet-linked new cancers, at 38.3%.

Protecting yourself from cancer

Science teaches us that inflammation can act as a precursor for cancer. The classic example is the relationship between smoking—which deposits inflammatory molecules in the lungs—and the constant tissue-damaging irritants that eventually cause lung cancer. Likewise, what we eat can also lead to long-term accumulation of toxins and irritants that inflame delicate tissues in the digestive tract and other organs. The body can take just so much self-inflicted pollution, but the big difference between smoking and eating is necessity. We don’t have to smoke, but we do have to eat. However, as the study’s lead author, Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, remarked in an interview, “Diet is among the few modifiable risk factors for cancer prevention.”[ii]

In an earlier blog I explained the association of chronic inflammation with prostate cancer. I wrote about the merits of eating a non-inflammatory diet such as the Mediterranean diet. Changing health by changing what you eat is not just wishful thinking. It that actually be measured by testing for inflammatory biomarkers in the blood and tissue. Fact: people whose nutrition is rich in vegetables and fruits that contain phytochemicals and micronutrients; whole grains; certain anti-inflammatory spices and seasonings like turmeric have fewer inflammation biomarkers than people who consume high amounts of saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, and ultraprocessed foods. In the U.S., 57.9% of energy intake (calories) in the average diet come from ultraprocessed food,[iii] revealing the extent of the national nightmare of rising healthcare costs—not just cancer-related, but poor nutrition is also directly related to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The good news is that diet is a 100% transformable factor in preventing disease. Choosing the Mediterranean diet (or similar program of anti-inflammatory foods) is an investment in preventing cancers of the prostate and other body systems, as well as in preserving heart health. I also want to put in a good word for choosing organic produce, and organically fed lean white meat (chicken, turkey, etc.) Remember to read labels carefully since there are different levels of what can be labeled as organic.

Want to live a long life with great quality of health? The ages-old wisdom still holds true: we are what we eat. Forget the national nightmare. Eat better food to make your dreams of health come true.

NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing pelvic pain, or have any other health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.


[i] Zhang FF, Cudhea F, Shan Z, Michaud D et al. Preventable Cancer Burden Associated with Poor Diet in the United States. JNCI Cancer Spectrum. 2019 May.  https://doi.org/10.1093/jncics/pkz034.

[ii] Howard, Jacqueline. Thousands of cancer diagnoses tied to a poor diet, study finds. CNN online. May 23, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/22/health/diet-cancer-risk-study/index.html

[iii]Steele EM, Baraldi LG, da Costa Louzada ML, Moubarac JC et al. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative corss-sectional study. BMJ Open. Vol. 6, No. 3. https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/3/e009892

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