About one in six deaths worldwide is from cancer. It is worse in the US where it is almost one in four. All of us know people who have died from cancer. Moreover, the most recent research has shown that obesity is the cause of up to forty percent of cancers. One cancer that specifically is made worse by obesity is pancreatic cancer.
Cancer of the pancreas is a horrible disease because it grows without causing symptoms in the vast majority of people who are afflicted with it. By the time symptoms are present, most patients are too far gone to receive effective treatment and they wither and die.
It starts when a few cells gain mutations. These may be caused by exposure to dietary nitrates from animal products that mutate the DNA of the pancreatic cells. When the immune system fails to kill those cells and they establish their own blood supply, they go rogue and create a tumor that usually flies under the immune system’s radar.
It is the third most common cause of cancer death in the US behind colon and lung cancer. It has been linked to smoking, obesity and some specific dietary practices. The number of cases varies dramatically depending on the country someone lives in. If you live in Armenia, you have seventy-seven times the risk of someone living in Tanzania. People who move from countries with low rates of pancreatic cancer to countries with high incidence assume the risk of the country they move to, suggesting environment, and not genes are the biggest factors.
Let’s look at some of those environmental factors in detail from this article on WebMD. We’ve already discussed smoking and obesity so we’ll hone in on diet.
First, a high fat diet is a risk factor, as is obesity. An important nutrition article about high fat diets and obesity states:
As a rule, experimental animals eating low-fat diets do not become obese. The major exceptions are animals with genetic forms of obesity, animals with neuroendocrine disorders, and animals treated with drugs or peptides. These exceptions underline the fact that the development of experimental obesity while consuming a low-fat diet is the exception.
… Development of obesity in animals eating high-fat diets is the expected outcome. Whether animals become obese or are resistant to obesity when eating high-fat diets has strong genetic components. From an epidemiologic perspective, a high-fat diet can be viewed as the agent that acts on the susceptible host animal to produce the noninfectious disease obesity.
To study the specific relationship between high fat diets and pancreatic cancer, researchers grafted human pancreatic cancer tissue onto mice and fed them different diets. What they found was that the high fat diet (20% of calories) made the human pancreatic cancer grow at a much faster rate. Interestingly, the fat that they used was a polyunsaturated vegetable oil. So high fat foods of all types seem to be a problem, not just animal fats.
The second risk factor the WebMD article mentions is meat. Not just red meat, but processed meats like bacon, sausage, pepperoni, sliced turkey and chicken nuggets. A large meta-analysis was done in 2012 to evaluate the relationship between processed meats and pancreatic cancer. It found that for every two ounces of processed meat, the risk of pancreatic cancer increased by 19%.
A Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast contains seven and a half ounces of processed meat. Starting your day with four strips of bacon and two sausage patties at home would give you five and a half ounces of processed meat. If the rest of the day you had no burgers, no nuggets and no other processed meats, you would still be increasing the risk of pancreatic cancer substantially.
The average American gets about an ounce of processed meat a day, but people who regularly eat fast food typically go much higher than that.
Other studies have shown dramatic reductions in pancreatic cancer rates in people who eat large amounts of fruits and vegetables. A study done at UC Berkley in the 90s found that high fruit and vegetable consumers generally had half the rates of most common cancers when compared to people who eat small amounts of those foods. For pancreatic cancer, they reviewed twelve studies, in ten of the twelve, the people who consumed the most fruit and vegetables had markedly lower risk of pancreatic cancer. In recent years, more than three in four Americans did not meet fruit and vegetable intake recommendations.
So let’s consider a world where heart attacks, strokes and diabetes don’t exist, but cancer still does. Wouldn’t this alone be enough to make you adopt a diet that is high in protective fruits and vegetables, low in total fat and low in cancer-promoting meats?
“But what am I going to eat?” you ask. I can’t just eat fruits and vegetables.
Agreed. You need a better source of calories. That should be traditional dietary staple foods. Whole grains, beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and lentils are excellent choices. They’ll fill you up and keep the cells in your pancreas from going rogue.