Issuing a warning against lifestyle-related causes of cancer, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has recommended reduced intake of red and processed meat and alcohol, and a healthy body weight. While doing so, the fund, which works to link cancer to risk factors like diet, nutrition and physical activity, has also sought to bust the myth that a small amount of alcohol is harmless.
According to the WCRF, “The important factor is the amount of alcohol (ethanol) consumed. Even small amounts of alcoholic drinks can increase the risk of several cancers. There is no threshold for the level of consumption below which there is no increase in the risk of at least some cancers.” It claims that evidence shows alcoholic drinks of all types have a similar impact on cancer risk.
The report states that globally, the total cost of cancer in 2030 — including direct medical costs, non medical costs and income losses — is estimated to be US$458 billion. “Therefore knowledge of the causes of cancer through the biological basis of the links between diet, nutrition, physical activity and cancer incidence is critical in understanding how to prevent it.”
The recommendations, compiled as a 10-point advisory based on findings by the Continuous Update Project (CUP) that collates research from around the world, include more physical activity, consuming whole grains, vegetables and fruits, limiting consumption of fast food and sugar-sweetened drinks, opting for breast feeding and avoiding intake of dietary supplements.
The WCRF says there is convincing evidence that physical activity (of moderate to vigorous intensity) protects against colon cancer, and probably against post-menopausal breast cancer and endometrial cancer. It recommends moderate amounts of red meat and small amounts of processed meat, if at all, as these have been linked to colorectal cancer. It prescribes three portions of red meat per week, each of 300 grams to 500 grams of cooked meat.
Dr. Shripad Banavali, oncologist at the Tata Memorial Hospital, said the cost of treating cancer is enormous, compared to prevention. “As the population and its age increases, there has been an tremendous rise in the number of cancer patients. It’s expensive to treat cancers in low and middle income countries like India.”
He feels the focus should be on prevention. “As many as 60% cancers are preventable in India. Tobacco, alcohol, bad lifestyle are the main causes.” Dr. Banavali added that India is faced with a shortage in cancer institutes, and though infrastructure is improving, prevention can vastly reduce the burden.
Dr. Nupur Krishnan, a clinical nutritionist, says that nutrient-rich foods not only help in reducing cancer risk but also help patients who are taking cancer treatment to bounce back. “Red meat, processed meat and other fast food are high on fat and energy. They can be easily replaced by other options that don’t up the risk of cancer and other diseases,” she said.