04/30/2013 12:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2013

A Miracle Diet That Prevents Cancer?

If you're ready to believe
the sensational titles and overhype in mass media, miracle super-foods that decrease the risk of cancer are discovered every other week.

Except miracles are just
that: something that rarely happens, and many of these reported "proven" food
cures are based on flimsy findings, never again to be reproduced.

Nevertheless, health
experts are unanimous about the effect our diet as a whole has on health, and on cancer risk. The World Health
Organization estimates that 25 percent of death burden in developed countries
is due to lifestyle -- completely
up to us -- risk factors.

Eight Healthy Habits

In 2007, a collaboration between the World Cancer
Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) evaluated the evidence and
produced consensus recommendations for reducing the risk of developing cancer and
for promotion of general good health and well-being. The WCRF/AICR report is the
largest study of its kind, and its conclusions are as definitive as the
available evidence allows.

The report featured eight general diet and
lifestyle recommendations for cancer prevention:

1.) "Body Fatness: Be as Lean as Possible Within the
Normal Range of Body Weight."

Maintaining a healthy weight throughout life may be one of the most important ways to protect against cancer, and being overweight or obese increases the risk of some cancers.

2.) "Physical Activity: Be Physically Active as Part of
Everyday Life."

3.) "Foods and Drinks That Promote Weight Gain: Limit the
Consumption of Energy-Dense Foods and Avoid Sugary Drinks."

drinks were targeted specifically in the report: "Such beverages appear to
exert little influence on total daily self-selected energy intakes and their
habitual consumption can lead to rapid and sustained weight gain even in the
face of restricted solid food intake." Another recommendation under this
heading is "Consume 'fast foods' sparingly, if at all."

4.) "Plant Foods: Eat Mostly Foods of Plant Origin."

that are protective against cancer are characterized by large intake of foods
of plant origin and, indeed, several cancers are responsive to increased
intakes of plant-based foods.

5.) "Animal Foods: Limit the Intake of Red Meat and Avoid
Processed Meat."

6.) "Alcoholic Drinks: Limit Alcoholic Drinks."

Men to
two per day, women to one per day.

7.) "Preservation, Processing, Preparation: Limit
Consumption of Salt and Avoid Moldy Cereal Grains and Pulses (Legumes)."

and salt-preserved foods probably contribute to stomach cancer risk, and foods
contaminated with aflatoxins are a cause of liver cancer. Although salt is
necessary for human health, typical levels of consumption are vastly excessive.

8.) Dietary Supplements: Aim to Meet Nutritional
Needs Through Diet Alone."

Dietary supplements are not recommended for cancer
prevention. According to the report, the greatest danger associated with the use
of dietary supplements is the possibility that consumption of supplements is
serving as an alternate to good nutrition, and supplements are taken as "magic
bullets" to compensate for cancer-friendly dietary and lifestyle practices.

So, not as easy as popping
a supplement or drinking acai juice, but does this recipe for cancer reduction
and longevity actually work?

Not a Shortcut, But It Will Get You There

A new study
in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, including almost 400,000 people
from nine European countries, scored participants' compliance with the first six WCRF/AICR recommendations. (There was insufficient data to
assess recommendations seven and eight.) Women were also assessed for another WCRF/AICR
recommendation specific to women: breastfeeding. The total possible score for a
man was therefore six, and for a woman, seven. The group was followed for about 12
years, and during that time almost 24,000 people died, 48 percent of them from

People with the highest WCRF/AICR score (five to six for men, six to seven for women)
had almost 34 percent lower risk of dying than those that had the lowest scores
(zero to two for men, zero to three for women). Each additional point in the WCRF/AICR score was
associated with a 1.2-year increase in life expectancy, and a higher score was
associated with lower risk of death from cancer, cardiovascular disease and
breathing problems. The recommendations regarding overweight and obesity, and
eating plant food, were the most strongly associated with risk of dying.

We like things fast and
now, and the WCRF/AICR recommendations aren't a shortcut, but isn't it nice
to know that we do have some control over our heath trajectory?

Dr. Ayala

For more by Ayala Laufer-Cahana, M.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.