Nutrition- more powerful than we might think
The truth behind claims of nutritional ‘cures’ – How does nutrition support healing?
Nutrition has a significant role to play in supporting our health and protecting us from disease. However, nutrition alone cannot simply cure all ailments or prevent all serious diseases – regardless of some of the ‘wonder cure’ claims we might see in the media
While some diseases have modifiable lifestyle factors associated with them, for example diabetes, it’s rarely as simplistic as some of the headlines might claim. In this respect, particularly in relation to diseases like cancer, the avoidance of medical treatments and interventions in favour of a nutrition-only approach could be incredibly damaging. In the case of Type 2 Diabetes, nutrition and lifestyle certainly plays a huge part, people who make changes to what they eat and how they move can put their condition into remission but Type 2 Diabetes cannot be ‘cured’ nutrition and lifestyle can help to keep the condition at bay but these changes would need to be maintained.
Here are some of the headlines that try to de-bunk the wonder cure myth;
Does Nutella cause cancer? https://examine.com/nutrition/does-nutella-cause-cancer/
Six bars of chocolate a week could reduce risk of fatal heart condition https://nationalpost.com/health/eating-chocolate-six-times-a-week-could-reduce-risk-of-a-fatal-heart-condition-harvard-study-says
Red meat is ‘probably’ a carcinogenic experts warn as processed meat officially listed as a cancer risk https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/technology-science/science/red-meat-probably-carcinogenic-experts-6707519
Myths about nutrition and health https://examine.com/nutrition/awful-nutrition-myths/#summary4
Tackling cancer treatment myths from clean eating to cannabis https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2017/jan/24/cancer-treatment-myths-clean-eating-cannabis-homeopathy-alternative
Any truth in the headlines?
Whilst many of the headlines can be misleading and based on fairly ad-hoc scientific research, there are common themes that can have some weight behind them in terms of their impact on our health. Often the media portrayal of something can misinterpret or cause alarm/confusion over an issue that may actually have some scientific bearing, thus making understanding what impact and what influence we can assert very challenging. Any link with nutrition and disease prevention is never going to be hailed scientifically as a cure or a definite form of prevention so please, never believe anybody, product or organisation making this claim.
When we talk about nutrition as a preventative measure or a means to support medicine in treating disease it is based around the following common nutrition principles: -
A healthy balanced diet
Whist this may sound simplistic it is the key to so many things! I always advise these top ten nutrition and lifestyle guidelines. Never with the claim that they will ‘cure all ailments’ but they will certainly give your body the best chance in terms of your influence on optimal health.
1. Avoid Ultra Processed Foods - as much as possible try to avoid Ultra Processed Foods (UPF’s). These are foods that have been processed and altered in a laboratory to increase shelf-life, taste, texture and appearance. One thing they tend to have in common is they lack any nutritional benefit and are commonly referred to as ‘empty calories’ calories devoid of nutrients. There are many reasons why these are detrimental to our general health but when we discuss the role of nutrition and cancer there are certain links with UPF’s.
“The shift in the world’s food supply to highly processed foods may partly account for increasing trends in the incidence of non-communicable diseases, including cancer”
Quote from BMJ article listed in the reference sources below.
“This dietary trend may be concerning and deserves investigation. Several characteristics of ultra-processed foods may be involved in causing disease, particularly cancer. Firstly, ultra-processed foods often have a higher content of total fat, saturated fat, and added sugar and salt, along with a lower fibre and vitamin density. Beyond nutritional composition, neoformed contaminants, some of which have carcinogenic properties (such as acrylamide, heterocyclic amines, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), are present in heat treated processed food products as a result of the Maillard reaction. Secondly, the packaging of ultra-processed foods may contain some materials in contact with food for which carcinogenic and endocrine disruptor properties have been postulated, such as bisphenol A. Finally, ultra-processed foods contain authorised, but controversial, food additives such as sodium nitrite in processed meat or titanium dioxide (TiO2, white food pigment), for which carcinogenicity has been suggested in animal or cellular models”
Extract from the NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort
2. Fruits and Vegetables – in direct contrast to the above, fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals. All of which support your overall health and well-being. Nature has provided us with colourful produce and each of the different naturally occurring colour groups offer slightly different nutritional benefits, hence the phrase ‘eat a rainbow a day’ as this will ensure that you get a cross-section of those nutritional benefits.
a. Orange – Red, yellow and orange foods are rich in carotenoids. These are powerful antioxidants and help the body to make vitamin A. Vitamin A is associated with eye-health but is also influential in supporting the immune function. Foods to include; carrots, squash, tomatoes, apricots, peppers (anything in this colour family).
b. Green – Green foods, particularly dark green leafy veg also contain carotenoids; spinach and kale are particularly good sources. Green veggies are also a great source of calcium especially kale and broccoli.
c. Purple – foods naturally purple in colour contain a powerful group of antioxidants called anthocyanins. Foods in this group include, berries, beetroot, purple grapes, black beans, kidney beans, plums and prunes, blackcurrants. Antioxidants protect us from free-radical damage.
3. Be picky with protein - Protein contains amino acids, these are essential for growth, indeed amino acids are actually referred to as the ‘building blocks of life’. Indeed, every single cell in your body contains protein and protein is the basic material of DNA and living cells. Protein does multiple roles in your body but few people realise that some proteins are antibodies, your body uses these to fight infections. Nutrition is incredibly important as dietary intake of protein can provide the body with all of the essential amino acids.
Humans need to eat a combination of 20 amino acids – 10 of these are essential to obtain from food as we cannot make them in our body. (Once we reach adulthood only 8 amino acids are essential).
Not all proteins are created equal, you may have seen headlines linking the consumption of red meat to certain cancers? Most of the evidence behind the headlines points to processed meats, such as hams, hotdogs burgers, bacon etc. This link with the association above between UPF’s and cancer – be picky with your protein, processed meats are unlikely to contain the amino acids you need. Choose from a trusted butcher, yes, it is more expensive but there is no need to, (in fact you really shouldn’t) eat meat each day.
Protein rich foods are also closely linked with our natural ability to manage our moods and emotions. Many amino acids play a part in the creation of important neurotransmitters. Having a natural balance with our moods is essential for our mental health and for maintaining blood-sugar control, cravings, and sleep.
4. Eat Fat – yes, eat fat! But the good sort. Eating a plentiful supply of Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) supports many aspects of our health including our immune system. In fact, both the amount and type of fatty acids in the diet influence the growth and activity of immune cells. It can feel daunting to include fats, particularly if you are used to dieting but the EFA’s are appropriately named, they are essential to us. Try to include the following foods several times a week (ideally in place of the UPF’s); Oily fish, particularly salmon, mackerel, tuna, nuts & seeds, flaxseed oil, avocadoes.
5. Exercise - being sedentary is incredibly dangerous for our health. Thymic decline is linked to physical inactivity and can rapidly accelerate your immunological age. Moving every day is essential for overall health and immune support - light exercise every day has multiple health benefits but is also linked to supporting your immune system due to temporary increase in the production of macrophages, the cells that attack bacteria and active muscle tissue is more beneficial to the body as it is has excellent immunoregulatory benefits. It’s documented that the best form of exercise for immunoregulatory benefits is moderate rather than extreme exercise which can put a toll on the immune system.
6. Consider your immunological age - There are many factors you can influence in terms of your own immune response and even the age of your immune system as this can age at a faster or slower rate than your biological age depending on how you live your life! Immunosenescence is the natural biological deterioration of our immune system and it starts surprisingly early on! During puberty. There are lifestyle factors that impact on your immunological age: -
• Obesity – sorry to say it but being obese suppresses the immune system
• Being sedentary is also damaging to the immune system,
• What you eat
• Stress – this supresses the immune system
7. Sleep – sleep is when we do our rest and recovery and poor sleep weakens the immune system. The link between sleep and health is quite complex but it is crucial!
8. Look after your Gut Health - a particularly important area in terms of immunity is the health of your gut flora. We know that pro and prebiotics can enhance the immune system and that poor gut health is one of the causes of premature ageing, so to support your immune age please take care of your microbiome, this really will support you right now and in the future.
9. Be happy – as strange as it may sound happiness, optimism, positivity all have an impact on our immune system. When faced with a diagnosis or a family member being given one, it can be, frankly, terrifying. Finding ways to not let the fear take over and to keep a positive outlook will actually, biologically support your immune system whereas negativity will do the opposite.
10. Take time for you – if it is a family member that has an illness, it may be that the toll on you could eventually cause you to become ill also. It isn’t selfish to take time out for you. We all know that we need to charge our phone or it will stop working, our body is the same, it needs to recharge. It could be a walk, 30 minutes to yourself, a bath, a film, whatever works for you but we can support others better when we are at our best.
We can and should all eat to support our immune system. This applies to all ages and at all stages of our health, not just considering boosting immunity when we are ill or run down. Our immune system can in many ways be our first line of defence against illness, as you can see from this article there are many factors that influence our immune system. Our immune system can even age more rapidly than our biological age and that, in turn can make us more suspectable to illness. There are links with nutrition and lifestyle but they are only links, nutrition cannot claim to cause or cure illness but we can and should be aware of the role in which food plays in our overall health and well-being and the steps that we can take to promote our best health possible for ourselves.
Reference sources –
BMJ Article – Ultra Processed Food and Cancer - https://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k599.full
The Lancet – Ultra Processed Foods
might increase cancer risk - https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(18)30184-0/fulltext
BMJ Article - Consumption
of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé
prospective cohort - https://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k322
International Journal of Molecular
Sciences - Effects of Omega 3 Fatty Acids on Immune cells https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6834330/
New Scientist March 2020 – You’re only as young as
your immune system