Current perspectives of food

When it comes to breast cancer prevention from a nutritional perspective, the message is clear, and often not what we want to hear.

In 2007, the World Cancer Research Fund Global Network published the fruit of a five year long process – a report summarising and grading the scientific evidence around food, nutrition, physical activity and the prevention of cancer. As cancer survivors are advised to adhere to the same nutritional guidelines as those who want to prevent cancer, these guidelines add value to us all.

Maintaining a healthy body weight throughout life may be one of the most important ways to protect cancer, and also a number of chronic diseases. The document advises us to stay within a normal BMI range – ideally a BMI of 21-23 throughout our lives.

It is not about looks – although all of us realise that there should be a connection between our hormones and breast and reproductive cancers. We know that there is a very interlaced interaction between body fat and hormones, and most hormones are in part driven, carried and function in the realm of our fat metabolism. A shocking truth if we read about global obesity rates – where we are often warned about diabetes and heart disease – we need to start a dialogue in terms of cancer risk and our waist size, as well.

Physical activity is equally important – 150 minutes of moderate activity is advised per week for overall health and prevention of illness. This is, surprisingly not just about weight, either! The World Health Organisation defines health as “complete physical and emotional well-being, not just the

absence of illness.” We know that we need to get our endorphins flowing with exercise to cope with stress, but few realise the smaller physiological benefits of exercise – one example is that when we exercise, the blood flow increases in our organs – a revelation for those suffering of constipation, as the increase of blood flow to the colon bears a huge relief of spastic colon symptoms!

An easy way to stay on the healthier part of the weight scale, is using fizzy drinks, fast foods and energy-dense foods sparingly. For example 3C of popcorn instead of a small packet of crisps is much more satisfying as it keeps you busy longer and contains less than half the kilojoules.

Limiting our red meat consumption to 3 times per week, and avoiding processed meat goes a long way too.

Alcohol – in South Africa, half the population don’t use alcohol at all, but research is showing that those of us who do drink, use enough to make up for them in quantity! Recommended intake includes one serving of alcohol for women and not more than two servings a day for men – and we are not allowed to accumulate our allowance for use over the weekend!

Eat your five a day of leafy greens and other non-starchy vegetables and fruit per day (a serving is about as big as a measuring cup).

In the last edition we chatted about phytochemicals and antioxidants in detail – remember to have a rainbow on your plate.

Avoid salt preserved, salted or salty foods and do not eat mouldy grains or mouldy pulses – when it comes to salt, the big issue is that the little bits here and there adds up in the end of the day. Microbial contamination of grains and pulses are not just a problem in tropical areas – the contamination of certain grains and pulses with aflatoxins, produces by some moulds when stored for long in hot temperatures cause major health issues.

According to the global report, dietary supplements are not recommended for cancer prevention. All nutrients are much more available to the body in the organic form, as in food, than in a synthetic form. We recommend eating food first and then use supplements when suggested by a health professional in case of possible deficiencies or other medical circumstances.

Also, breastfeeding for as long as you can (up to 6 months is optimal) – a real investment in the lifelong health of your baby in terms of immunity, cognition and obesity prevention.

All in all, the message is as old as time, but like all cliché’s still relevant to us all – aim for a diet rich in variety and exciting in terms of colour, and full of moderation, if you want to optimise your living experience.


Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietitian in Cape Town, she holds a MSc in Dietetics and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.