High salt intake can increase risk of stomach, oesophageal cancers

The link between diet and cancer risk is complex, but certain dietary patterns and food choices are associated with an increased risk of cancer.
High salt intake can increase risk 
of stomach, oesophageal cancers

Some studies have suggested that high salt intake could increase the risks of stomach and oesophageal cancers, and frequent consumption of very hot beverages might also increase the risk of oesophageal cancer, says Dr Neil M Iyengar, breast oncologist, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in an interview with Affan Abdul Kadar. Edited excerpts:

In recent years, incidence of cancer has been on the rise. Do diet and food habits play a role in incidence of cancer?

The link between diet and cancer risk is complex, but certain dietary patterns and food choices are associated with an increased risk of cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified processed meats as carcinogenic and unprocessed red meats as “probably” carcinogenic, with studies showing that consuming these meats increases the risk of colorectal, stomach, and breast cancers. Diets high in ultra-processed foods, such as snacks and sodas, significantly raise cancer risk, with a 2018 study linking a 10% increase in ultra-processed food intake to a 12% higher overall cancer risk and an 11% higher breast cancer risk. Some studies have suggested that high salt intake could increase the risks of stomach and oesophageal cancers, and frequent consumption of very hot beverages might also increase the risk of oesophageal cancer. Additionally, high-glycaemic diets increase the risk of endometrial cancer, and aflatoxin in improperly stored food is a known carcinogen linked to liver and gallbladder cancers.

If diet plays an important role, what types of food should be avoided? Additionally, what foods are good for health and can help prevent or boost immunity against cancer?

While there’s no one miracle food, an overall plant-forward dietary pattern can support general wellbeing and reduce cancer risk. This includes a diversity of plant-derived foods like tomatoes and bell peppers, along with cruciferous vegetables and protein from plant sources such as legumes and nuts. For those who consume foods from animal sources, I recommend limiting it to 20% of the diet or less and favour lean meats such as poultry and fish. Steer clear of processed foods, red meats, and sugary drinks – they’re like fuel for inflammation which can impair immune function and increase cancer risk. Instead, load up on fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins like fish and legumes. Fibre-rich foods increase satiety, which can help us eat fewer unhealthy calories by making us feel full. Fibre also helps to optimise insulin levels and supports healthy gut bacteria, which reduces cancer risk and might even help some cancer therapies such as immunotherapies work better. And don’t forget to hydrate with water or flavoured sparkling water instead of those sugar-packed sodas.

Dr Neil M Iyengar
Dr Neil M Iyengar

Instant food is nowadays a go-to item, especially among teens and bachelors. Is this a cause for concern and what are the health implications, both short and long term?

Often loaded with calories, unhealthy fats, sodium, and additives, instant foods usually lack essential vitamins, minerals, and fibre. This can lead people to feel generally unwell in the short-term. In the long run, excessive reliance on instant meals can contribute to weight gain, high blood pressure, digestive issues, and a heightened risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and even some cancers.To avoid these pitfalls, consider healthier alternatives like frozen vegetables and lean proteins for quick stir-fries, canned beans or lentils for a fibre and protein boost, or prepped vegetables and pre-cooked grains for easy meal assembly. Stepwise changes and setting aside some time for meal and snack prep can make a big difference for overall health.

How bad is sugar for health?

There’s a lot of confusing information about sugar and cancer. While some claim that sugar directly causes cancer, this isn’t accurate. However, there is a connection between sugar, obesity, and cancer. Consuming large amounts of sugary foods and drinks can lead to weight gain. Additionally, high sugar intake raises insulin levels, which can create an environment that may support cancer growth. The main issue is excessive calorie intake, not sugar alone. To reduce cancer risk, it’s important to maintain a balanced diet, manage weight, and stay active.

Does obesity increase the risk of cancer?

Obesity is a significant risk factor for many types of cancer. This is because excess body fat isn’t just stored; it produces hormones that regulate inflammation. We and other researchers have found that excess body fat leads to chronic inflammation, which can alter tissues and promotetumor growth. Fat cells produce hormones and inflammatory molecules that can damage DNA and disrupt immune responses, creating an environment conducive to cancer. Obesity is linked to higher rates of at least 13 cancers such as breast, endometrial, ovarian, prostate, and others. In addition to well-known risk factors like smoking and alcohol, obesity is a leading risk factor for cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight and body fat levels through balanced diet and exercise is crucial for reducing cancer risk.

Does following a diet during medication have an effect on health?

Eating well plays a crucial role in managing side effects, supporting healthy body functions, and could improve medication absorption for better results. A nutritious diet can help alleviate symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, and loss of appetite commonly associated with medications. It provides essential nutrients needed for healing and maintaining strength. However, restrictive diets without proper guidance can lead to nutrient deficiencies that could hinder medication effectiveness. The biggest concern lies in potential drug interactions with specific foods. To navigate this safely, consult your doctor or pharmacist before starting any new diet while on medication. They can personalise a plan to optimise your health and medication benefits, while avoiding any negative interactions.

What are the points to keep in mind while choosing a diet?

Choosing a diet requires careful consideration. The key is finding a sustainable plan that fits your lifestyle and preferences. A balanced approach with a variety of nutrient-rich foods from all groups is ideal. Firstly, focus on overall dietary patterns rather than singular foods touted as cancer-preventive. A balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and plant-based foods high in fibre can lower cancer risk. Limiting red meat and processed foods is also essential. Additionally, consider healthier substitutes like flavoured seltzer water instead of soda or protein shakes over milkshakes. High-fibre fruits and dark chocolate with almonds can satisfy sugar cravings while offering nutritional benefits. Finally, portion control is crucial. Even healthy foods can be unhealthy in excess. Be wary of fad diets, or extreme eating patterns that could cause your weight to yo-yo up and down. Ultimately, consulting with a registered dietician can help personalise your nutrition plan for optimal health.

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