As a psychotherapist, working with cancer sufferers and their families, I have seen how a cancer diagnosis turns lives upside down. Both my parents were also the victims of cancer and this has led me to try to understand the disease from my own personal point of view. In other words: Is cancer my destiny or can I somehow “dodge the bullet”?
Clearly, genes come into it too and, while you may be genetically predisposed to certain cancers, I am convinced your lifestyle and environment can also make a big difference as to what your future may hold.
Canadian researchers have recently categorised five leading risk factors which account for a minimum of 40% of cancer cases. These are:
- Smoking – passive and active
- Being overweight – a BMI of over 25
- Lack of physical activity
- Diet – not enough fruit, vegetables and fibre and too much saturated fat, processed carbohydrates and salt
My personal interest led me to a training course through Cornell University in the US, a university that has spent decades looking into heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Its findings, too, come out against hyper-processed foods and it particularly concerned about foods that come in two obvious forms – either in boxes with labels that sit on shelves for weeks or as animal products – meat, dairy, eggs and fish.
Cornell’s evidence-based protocol – effectively a whole food plant-based regime with no oil or added salt – is now being prescribed to patients all over the world and the results are impressive.
I have spent a good deal of time talking to people who have made similar changes to their eating habits – some of whom experienced real difficulty before achieving any success and reaping the health benefits but others seems very reluctant to make a change, despite the evidence that such a change will do them good.
As a result of this, I’ve compiled what I call an Alternative A-list, summarising why I believe some people may not be eating for their health. I’ve given a reason why and a “takeaway” message which I hope will help.
GPs are not trained to advise their patients, nor do they necessarily have an ideal diet themselves so they may feel reluctant to give specific advice to their patients.
Hospital patients may find their rooms turned into veritable tuck shops as friends and family seek to bring comfort.
Take-away message: In my view, healthy, whole, living foods lead to healthy bodies: processed and dead foods lead to sickness.
Some people may feel apathetic when faced with the information.
As a therapist, it is not our role to force, cajole, guilt or frighten people into changing their behaviours but one way I offer guidance to my clients is to give them the opportunity to imagine their lives in a healthy body with a clear mind. Picturing themselves in three years’ time, what they will look like, how healthy they will be, the clothes they will wear, the energy they will feel, the jobs they could do, may help bring about a willingness to make even small changes in the present that could lead to that outcome.
Take-away message: It’s easier to get excited about change when you can picture know the benefits.
Avoidance of pain and discomfort is a primeval instinct and the temptation to think: “I’ll change my lifestyle when I feel a bit stronger” calls to a core belief that change will be hard and at least psychologically painful. Undoubtedly, they will miss comforting food so may be put off making changes, in the short-term at least.
As with any avoidant behaviour, even a baby-step in the right direction can kick-start better habits. Adding a green smoothie to breakfast or gradually increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables in the diet will subtly push the calorie-rich and processed (CRAP) foods from the plate. For the brave few who decide to go “cold-tofu”, the boost to energy levels, return of mental clarity, improvement in mood and loss in weight, are among the most rewarding effects – often experienced in as little as a week.
Take away message: Baby steps, but the bigger the change, the bigger the impact.
The word “addiction” is increasingly being used in relation to food. When you understand that much of our food is little more than a “food-like substance” made hyper-palatable by food scientists in laboratories, the term addiction seems entirely appropriate. In general, people aren’t suffering with addiction to apples, carrots or spinach but they are struggling with cheese, chocolate, baked goods and meat.
Cutting out such foods may be challenging, and withdrawal symptoms often feature as the body learns to live without chemicals on which it has learned to rely.
Helping clients to focus on the future, on a life beyond addiction when they will regain the ability to taste whole food and experience its full flavour without the taste-dulling effects of highly processed sugar, salt and oil, may help provide motivation. When illness is present, it can be truly empowering to offer a client a pathway to health over which they have direct control and this hope may help them to successfully tackle their addiction.
Takeaway thought: Food-like substances aren’t food and can be addictive; time to go “cold-tofu”.
So assuming awareness, apathy, avoidance, and addiction have been addressed and the individual is beginning to feel the benefits of a nutrient dense diet, there may still be trouble ahead.
Advertising is worth a mention here. Food manufacturers and restaurants know that people sitting at home, with no food plans, an under-stocked fridge or freezer and at the end of a busy day, are ready to break their best resolutions.
|Junk food comforts but is not healthy|
Another serious barrier to change, is that people do not live in a vacuum. Clients have partners and families who may have a different perspective or their own addictions to battle. Admonishment, peer pressure or just being plain teased can be really unpleasant, particularly when a person is trying so hard to do the right thing.
Bearing the discomfort of disapproval can be so hard that it can sometimes feel easier just to give up. However, when the prize on offer is recovery from illness, longevity and an ability to be a healthier spouse, friend or parent, it actually becomes harder to go back to old habits. In my experience, when people see you looking slimmer and healthier, they begin to ask genuine questions and perhaps in their own time, they begin to make changes.
Take away message: Row your own boat – those that want to, will follow in their own time but they are not your responsibility.
Availability of good healthy food seems to be improving for many people, particularly those in big towns and cities. But in some areas of the country, not only are restaurants still behind the times, there is also a distinct lack of fresh fruit and vegetables on offer, which makes it very difficult to make the necessary changes. Frozen vegetables are a good option; they are often reasonable priced (with less waste) and, interestingly, the nutrient density of frozen food can often be greater than apparently fresh food that has been sitting around for days.
Buying dried beans and peas is also another cost-effective option – again, taking a little effort to soak them overnight will save money and can be even better than the canned alternatives.
Research links poor-quality food to poor mental and physical health so, if every penny counts, it’s worth remembering that fresh and frozen food, as well as dried beans and peas, can work out far cheaper than their processed alternatives.
Takeaway message: We eat what’s available – make good stuff available.
One of my favourite past-times is checking in on the many healthy-eating support groups on social media to read the wonderful stories of restored health. The vast majority of these stories talk of better mental health, weight loss (100 lbs is not unusual), reduced blood pressure (110/70 is not unusual) and normalised blood work including blood sugar, cholesterol and inflammation markers often resulting in a reduction in medications. These stories are inspiring and serve to reinforce the science.
The important thing is to celebrate every single step/mouthful in the right direction. Just one portion of mushrooms a week has been proven to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women, just one portion of green vegetables per day is linked to reduced colon cancer risk … I could go on and on.
Rest assured, falling off the wagon from time to time is only natural and that’s OK. The odd transgression in the midst of a generally nutrient packed diet will not undo the good work the body has done in terms of gut bacteria, cell repair and fat loss (the preferred home of many toxins).
Take-away message: Success is achievable one mouthful at a time and support is available.
This article has attempted to explore some of the reasons why making the right choices for health can be at best, tricky and at worst, downright impossible.
Sadly, there is a genetic component and some people will develop cancer whatever they do. In the modern world, it is also fairly impossible to avoid all of the toxins (air pollution, clothing, carpets) that are currently known to be carcinogenic. However, eating an optimal diet including plenty of greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries and seeds is demonstrating that, on a daily basis and in large numbers, good food does lead to good health.
By Gemma Davies
Main picture by Mariana Montes de Ocarina's, Unsplash
2nd photo by Robin Stickel, Unsplash