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Sunday, 19 May 2013

Friend or foe?

Sheila Dillon is the presenter for the Food Programme on Radio 4. In a recent article she turns her attention to a subject I was writing about in the year 2000. She was recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma which is a comparatively rare cancer of the bone marrow.

On her visits to her local cancer treatment centre she was surprised to encounter ambivalent staff attitudes towards nutrition. On each visit, she was offered a white bread sandwich, a fizzy drink and either a chocolate bar or some biscuits. I can well believe this because I saw the same things being offered to my first wife in 2000 when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. I am dismayed to see that little has changed because there are no excuses for this

It is counter-intuitive to ignore nutrition when treating someone with a cancer diagnosis. Granted, if the cancer is of genetic origin, the diet of the individual is likely to be limited in its effect on their long term outcome. A great many cancers though are not genetic and by deduction are either environmental or maybe even psychosocial in origin. One of the problems in all of this is that current medical education is entrenched in evidence-based medicine. This is all well and good but does close its eyes to anything outside of that box.

In 2007, the World Health Organisation stated that 60% of oesophageal cancers, 45% of all colorectal cancers and 38% of breast cancers could be prevented with just three core strategies. A healthy diet, a healthy body weight and regular physical activity all contribute to these claimed reductions. Much has been written about the Mediterranean diet and rightly so because it is very straightforward and very healthy. The only notable omissions to this diet are heavily processed foods, refined flours, sugars and specifically, saturated (animal) fat. The best part is that we don't need to live in the Mediterranean region to achieve it.

Surely when our body is being presented with the challenge of fighting a cancer, the best thing to do is to give it the best available fuel to do the job? Of course, some cancers sadly remain untreatable but many are now treated very well so it makes sense to stack the odds in our favour when we can. If no less a body than the World Health Organisation recognises this fact, why are our health professionals not doing likewise? The average hospital in this country, regardless of cancer treatment centres, are littered with vending machines which dispense most of the very foodstuffs which we should be seeking to avoid. Why is this being allowed? If patients choose to bring their own food in to the hospital that is a matter for them but please don't offer them the wrong foods from the hospital itself. The hospital ought to be promoting health, not exacerbating it.

I suspect the real reason the hospitals place such a small premium on nutrition is that it seems like too much hard work. For a start, staff would have to be seen to be adopting the same approach to their own health which, with due respect, is not always the case. The big food manufacturers who benefit from the proceeds of such vending machines might also have something to say about it. More than this though, we as a society have become progressively more attuned to a high carbohydrate diet which is now known to be detrimental to our long term health. The real challenge therefore seems to be one of change through better education. When we go to the shops today, the marketing begins even before we have entered. Look at the special offers the next time you go to a supermarket and ask yourself this? How many of these offers tick the boxes of the Mediterranean diet? That is to say, how many of these offers are not processed food, not high in saturated fat, not high in sugar and not high in refined flour? You will not find many and that is because it is the food manufacturers who are reliant on maintaining our eating habits to sustain their profits for their shareholders. Ironically, with a work-based or personal pension, you are probably already contributing to their profits and your own pension because it is likely that your pension provider has a vested interest in their success. It is therefore clear that effecting such a change is going to be like pushing the proverbial elephant up the hill.

That said, we all have the capacity to choose what we allow in to our bodies. The challenge is to try to be even stronger than the lure of the marketing which seeks to keep us hooked in to this cycle of inferior nutrition. It is surely one of the great ironies of our age that the very poor in countries such as China and India have diets far superior to our own because they can scarcely afford to eat meat or processed foods. It is only us in the West with our disposable incomes who can afford to eat so badly to maintain the pressure on our already buckling Health Service.

I attended a small talk the other day given by a nutritionist and she asked a question which made me think. What was the last thing you had to eat and did you enjoy it? I think that if we all made a habit of asking ourselves this simple question on a regular basis, things might start to change for the better and we would all start to see the light. A bit of food for thought on a lovely Sunday in spring. Great day for a walk in the country?