The relationship between diet and health never figured in any conversations I had with my doctors, surgeons and oncologists pre, during or post my experience with cancer. And yet, the more I’ve looked into making and keeping myself well, the more I’ve realised the absolute importance of everything I feed my body. Central to this has been vegetables, that much maligned food generally touted by mothers yet detested by kids. But what is it about a plant-based diet, of which vegetables are a part along with fruit, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, that makes it integral to health, especially in terms of recovery from disease?
In previous Posts, I’ve highlighted the fact that cancer is derived from a cellular dysfunction; an anomaly in the DNA configuration of a cell that turns it rogue so instead of normal metabolic behaviour, it changes its fuel source from oxygen to glucose and creates an environment that will allow it to replicate and override the inevitability of cellular death. This being the case, since it all begins in the cell, it makes sense to focus each and every day on nourishing, maintaining and protecting our cellular health as much as possible.
Whilst deep breathing and exercise especially in the form of rebounding, help to oxygenate the cells, diet is a key component since what we eat, through the digestive processes that break down food into its constituent molecules, becomes the nutrients and energy that fuel every cell in our body.
We all know that nutritionally poor diets loaded with sugar, dairy, meat and processed foods combined with sedentary lifestyle choices, stress and the added implications of smoking and over-use of alcohol can cause dire health consequences. According to documented research, however, “Epidemiological studies provide support that individuals who consume a plant-based diet have a nutritional advantage over conquering chronic degenerative diseases” (//thetruthaboutcancer.com/rainbow-diet-cancer/). This is due to the strong antioxidant properties of fruit and vegetables.
To make sense of how and why this is important, an understanding of oxidation, particularly oxidative stress, is required. Naturally, oxygen is key to the chemical processes that occur in the body to sustain life, however, the unstable nature of the oxygen molecule means that it readily attaches to “free radicals” which are byproducts of regularly occurring chemical reactions within us that create unpaired electrons. In order to become stable, they steal the required electrons from adjacent molecules, thereby creating further “free radicals” in the process. If this continues without check, the impact is oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between the antioxidants that can surrender their electrons without risk of becoming destabilised and the pro-oxidants or “free radicals” that are causing the damage. Factors such as poor diet, stress, toxins, pollutants, infections, alcohol and radiation are all contributing factors to oxidative stress. In fact, oxidative stress which impacts on healthy cells in the body, has been “implicated in the pathogenesis of at least 50 diseases” (//www.news-medical.net/health/What-are-Antioxidants.aspx).
In the case of cancer, documented studies show, however, that a plant-based diet is able to “protect us from environmental and ingested carcinogens by arming our antioxidant enzymes [and] enhancing DNA repair pathways” (www.bjmp.org/content/phytochemicals-cancer-prevention-and-management). What’s more, the phytochemicals of a plant-based diet have a direct impact on reducing inflammation in the body, which is a proven link to disease, especially in terms of cancer development. Scientific reviews conducted by the World Cancer Fund and other academic bodies confirm that people who consume a plant-rich diet experience lower incidence of cancer or relapse after treatment .
Longitudinal studies also highlight the benefits afforded by the lifestyle adoption of a plant-based diet. In a 12 year study of the health and dietary habits of over 73000 Seventh Day Adventists in America and Canada (2002-2014), researchers identified that those among them who were vegetarians not only lived longer but showed less incidence of cancer and heart disease. In another landmark study called the China Study, a collaborative project spanning 20 years was conducted by researchers from Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine. It involved following the diets of 6500 adults across 65 counties in China and incorporated a total of 367 variables. The results were irrefutably in favour of the health benefits of a plant-based diet in lowering the risk of developing and even reversing chronic disease such as cancer and heart disease.
Essentially, we are and become what we eat. It’s not up for debate. What is, are the choices we make. And for me, at least for the most part, my preference sits with Hippocrates’ wisdom: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2, Orlich, Dr M.J., MD, Dr Singh, P. N., Dr PH, Dr Fraser, G. E., MBchB, PhD, [//www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4191896/]
The China Study, [//nutritionstudies.org/the-china-study]
Plant-based Diets, McCrea, B., (www.cancercenter.com/community/thrive/plant-based-diets/)
What are Antioxidants, Dr Ananya Mandal, MD, (//www.news-medical.net/health/What-are-Antioxidants.aspx)
How this Normal Body Process can contribute to More than 60 Diseases, Mercola, Dr J., (//articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/05/16/all-about-antioxidants.aspx)
Antioxidants Explained: Why these Compounds are so Important, Fontenot, B, (//www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/10/antioxidants-explained-why-these-compounds-are-so-important/247311)
How Antioxidants Work, Berkeley Wellness, (//www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-eating/food/article/how-antioxidants-work)
What are Free Radicals?, Szalay, J., (//www.livescience.com/54901-free-radicals.html)
Phytochemicals in Cancer Prevention and Management?, Thomas, R., Butler, E., Macchi, F. & Williams, M., (www.bjmp.org/content/phytochemicals-cancer-prevention-and-management)