Tuesday, March 5, 2024
Tuesday, March 5, 2024
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Diets high in plant-based foods and low in processed foods may help reduce cancer risk

February 7, 2024 – Research suggests that nearly a quarter of new cancer cases could be prevented with better nutrition. In recognition of World Cancer Day, the Harvard Chan Studio held a panel discussion on February 5 where experts debunked cancer misinformation and offered science-based dietary advice.

The livestream featured Edward Giovannucci, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health; Eliza Leone, registered dietitian and wellness manager, Restaurant Associates, Harvard Medical School; and Timothy Rebbeck, Vincent L. Gregory, Jr. Professor of Cancer Prevention at the Harvard Chan School and director of the Zhu Family Center for Global Cancer Prevention. The panel was moderated by Gabrielle Emanuel, WBUR senior science and health reporter.

Following the panel discussion, Sebastian’s Café Executive Chef Chris Kelly hosted a healthy cooking demonstration and tasting in the café below.

The panelists began by discussing the components of a healthy diet. Giovannucci suggested that people starting to make dietary changes focus on consuming healthier proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. He defined them as lean meats and proteins of plant origin such as legumes; plant-based fats such as avocado and olive oil; and whole grains, vegetables and fruits. He and the other panelists recommended avoiding highly processed foods.

This type of dietary pattern helps control lipids, cholesterol and blood glucose, as well as helping to maintain weight at a healthy level. Giovannucci said these are the mechanisms by which a healthy diet helps reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. He said that while less research has been done on diet and cancer, the risk is likely to be affected by some of the same mechanisms.

Chronic inflammation may be another important way that diet affects cancer risk, Giovannucci and Rebbeck said. Diets high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods can trigger chronic inflammation throughout the body. This can affect levels of insulin and a hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF). As Giovannucci explained, IGF “tells cells that there are plenty of nutrients around them, so they continue to grow.” This increases cell proliferation and the possibility of a mutation that causes cancer.

Rebbeck, who oversees the Cancer Fact Finder website, he was asked about cancer-related myths he would like to debunk. He noted that social media is flooded with misinformation and disinformation, but the most dangerous types of posts to watch out for are those that suggest replacing well-established, scientifically determined treatments with “magic pills”; for example, taking a supplement on the spot. of chemotherapy.

When it comes to vitamin supplements taken to help fill dietary gaps, Giovannucci said there is some evidence that multivitamins may help reduce cancer risk. Folate, folic acid, and vitamin D in particular may be beneficial. However, he added, people should avoid taking vitamins in very high doses.

Panelists also addressed the effect of alcohol on cancer risk. “People don’t like to hear this message, but alcohol is a carcinogen,” Rebbeck said. “My reading of the literature is that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.” He noted that avoiding all risk is a difficult way to live and that people have to make judgments about their personal risk calculation.

Giovannucci said there appears to be some benefit for diabetes and cardiovascular risk reduction from moderate alcohol consumption. However, he said someone looking to reduce their cancer risk may want to avoid alcohol.

Leone’s top suggestions for people who want to improve their diet are to get comfortable in the kitchen and explore different ways of cooking vegetables; For example, roast broccoli instead of steaming it.

She noted that nutritional information can be overwhelming and making dietary changes can be difficult. “Just start somewhere,” she said. “Pick one thing you can achieve and do it.”

—Amy Roeder

Photos: Kent Dayton

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