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Cancer prevention starts with healthy living

Cancer prevention starts with healthy living

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the world with 1.4 million new cases diagnosed in 2012, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International. It’s estimated that roughly half of these can be prevented by lifestyle changes, including healthy eating, physical activity and avoidance of tobacco and alcohol.

In the U.S., the risk of getting colon cancer in one’s lifetime is 5 percent, and 50,000 Americans are expected to die of colorectal cancer in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society. Currently, there are about 1 million survivors.

A recent report by World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meat such as bacon, hot dogs, lunch meats and sausage as definite carcinogens. The evidence was very strong, as over 800 studies were reviewed by 22 experts from 10 different nations.

Red meat was classified as a probable carcinogen, and as far as risk, the panel calculated that a small serving of processed meat (50 grams) would “only” raise the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. That would mean that the lifetime risk of an average American would go from 5 to 6 percent.

I saw many articles in newspapers and blogs proclaiming that processed meat is “not as bad” as smoking, since smoking would raise the chances of lung cancer 25 times over.

I have a different take on this information.

As a physician focusing on lifestyle changes, my goal isn’t just mitigation of risks, but actual risk reduction. Colonoscopies are recommended for Americans over 50 as a strategy to reduce cancer death because polyps are taken out. My goal is to reduce the chances of polyps and cancer in the first place.

Worldwide, there are very wide variations in colon cancer incidence. The nations of southern North American, Central America, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Middle Africa have incidence of colon cancer that is far less the incidence of that in the US.

Why, with such high technology and resources, is colon cancer so high?

It’s mostly lifestyle. One’s diet, physical activity and avoidance of tobacco and alcohol are the most important factors. By default, the cuisines of these countries are mostly plant-based, and in the case of India, perhaps spices are partly responsible for the reduced cancer rate.

The question we should be asking is not how much processed meat and red meat we can get away with without getting colon cancer, but rather what steps we can take to actually reduce chances of colon cancer.

If everyone fought as hard to prevent cancer as they did when they were diagnosed with cancer, we would have much fewer cancer cases in the U.S. Our goal shouldn’t be a slight reduction in cancer, but it should be to reduce it by 50 percent or more. There is a population in the U.S. who accomplishes this goal, and that’s the Seventh-day Adventist population in California, who has more than a 50 percent reduction of colorectal cancer incidence.

Knowing the above, I chose to eat only fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and shun all meat, dairy, egg and cheese in hopes that I can reduce my chance of dying from cancer and heart disease as much as possible. I chose not even to consume a little alcohol or smoke one cigarette because again, I want to reduce my chances of cancer.

There are factors beyond my control like environment, pesticides, etc., but I want to do the best possible. We have a fiduciary responsibility to our family and society to do the best possible to try to reduce our risks of getting ill.

Look at the big picture and don’t lose the forest for the trees. There’s a big difference between saying eating a little red and processed meat will only raise my chances of cancer by 18 percent, or eating an unprocessed diet of plant foods will reduce my risks of cancer by the most possible. Why not go for the gold?

Only 3 percent of Americans are lacking protein, while almost all are deficient in fiber and potassium. Where is this fiber found? It’s found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. There’s no fiber in meat, cheese, egg and dairy foods. Fiber is the nutrient that reduces incidence of colon cancer, found in numerous studies over and over.

Protein has never been associated with reduction in the risk of cancer. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Most Americans have excess protein, which leads to disease. Usually the protein is accompanied with fat, which causes heart disease. If you focus on whole, unprocessed grains, beans, veggies, you will get enough protein, because all living things contain protein.

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  1. Very interesting article. Others who like this should check out an old book called, “Back to Eden” by Kloss. I just viewed the film, “Food Inc.” with my family last night. I’m not one to overreact to controversial films, but I’m just about ready to join Dr. Garg in his personal intake choices.

    • Dr. Ashwani Garg

      Thank you so much for sharing the name of the book “Back to Eden” – definitely an early work talking about how food can heal the body. This concept is definitely not new, because it originated with Hippocrates and probably even before that. There is definitely a resurgence of “Lifestyle Medicine” and even a new medical specialty that is developing by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine that will focus on prevention and treatment of illness using lifestyle changes. This is not “alternative” or “complementary” medicine but is mainstream medicine, as the new continuing education courses and curriculum are being developed under the roof of the American College of Preventive Medicine, which is an ABMS-recognized specialty. I encourage you to start your lifestyle change, one step at a time. The closer one gets to a completely plant-based diet, the better one’s health. A good start is to first immediately cut out milk, cheese, and eggs, and then while adding plant foods, to subtract meat foods gradually. Remember, our medical societies, including American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Family Physicians are heavily influenced by drug companies, vitamin companies, and even food companies like Coca Cola and the dairy industry. Don’t expect them to promote this kind of eating plan, because big broccoli doesn’t fund them. On the other hand, large healthcare organizations such as Kaiser Permanente on the west coast, are promoting plant based eating, because this is the only solution to today’s healthcare crisis. See and
      The new president of American College of Cardiology who is Dr. Kim Williams at Rush University, is a big advocate of plant-based diets:
      Someday, along with asking “how many cigarettes do you smoke?” we will be asking “how many servings of meat, cheese, dairy, eggs do you eat per week?” and “how many plants do you eat in a week?” as this intervention will prove to be more effective than any pill that can be prescribed.

  2. Dr. Ashwani Garg

    I would encourage anyone interested in more information to go to; any healthcare professionals to go to; and anyone like Shawn Martin who is interested in more films to watch “Forks over Knives” and “Cowspiracy” on Netflix, as well as “Plantpure Nation” on Amazon Video. I want to encourage anyone wanting to try a more plant based diet to not worry about perfection; this is not an all or nothing plan. A good start would be to consume 2-3 fruits daily, and 4-6 veggie servings daily, and then introduce 1 cup of beans/peas/lentils daily, and focus on replacing all refined foods with whole grains and unrefined plant foods. Include 1-2 oz. of nuts/seeds such as walnut and flax. Replace eggs with other options such as tofu or chickpea scramble, oatmeal or whole grain pancakes made with flax powder instead of eggs, or even “chickpea omelette” for which you can find recipes on Youtube. Instead of chicken or egg salad sandwich, try making “chickpea salad” sandwich the same way without the mayo. Don’t wait until you actually get cancer to make these changes! If someone wants to continue eating meat/egg/cheese/etc., then minimize the quantity to 1 serving a week. 1 unhealthy meal out of 21 per week isn’t going to ruin one’s health, but those 20 meals of whole, unrefined plant foods will help detox and cleanse the body. Most likely, that 1 meal of meat/egg/cheese will probably fall away as one’s tastes change. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. Eating out has become much easier now with many restaurants offering plant-based options. Even those meat-heavy restaurants can have customized dishes that are plant-based. For example, at Buona Beef which is a Chicago favorite, try a Portobello Provolone, subtract the cheese, and add avocado. With a side of fruit or minestrone, and lemon water, you have got yourself a plant-based lunch! At Chipotle, get a vegetarian burrito bowl which comes with guac, get both kinds of beans, brown rice, fajita veggies, drop the cheese/sour cream, and you’ve got yourself a plant-based bowl. Panera has a soba noodle bowl with edamame. Cheesecake factory now has a vegan cobb, or get lettuce wraps, replace the chicken breast with a grilled portobello, and you’ve got vegan wraps. Giordano’s – get a thin crust, “super” veggie no cheese, and they put so many veggies including mushroom and artichoke you don’t miss the cheese. Vegetables become the main dish. In Chicago area, there is no lack of tasty, healthy plant-based foods, even at non-vegetarian restaurants.

  3. This was an excellent article and additional info in comments, Dr. Garg. I started to get migraine headaches a year ago in November that I would sometimes wake up with. Then Jan, 2015 tested +Brca1 gene (family history of breast and ovarian cx). I adopted a plant based diet with the help of books by Caldwell Esselstyn, his wife and daughter and now migraine free since Feb. Also had slow weight loss (~1 lb a week) now at weight I was 25 yrs ago (I’m 50). I advocate this lifestyle/dietary approach for anyone that is fearful of health consequences from poor choices and for those who wants to look young and feel great. Thanks again for getting this info out there, Dr. Garg!

    • Dr. Ashwani Garg

      Thanks so much for sharing your story. One of my patients showed me the wonderful cookbook from the Esselstyn family, I had a chance to meet him at a conference in Chicago and he is such a wonderful and humble person. His whole family is involved in the plant-based movement. Sounds like you teach others by example and that is the way to go! I would encourage you to get even more involved in this movement by going to the website established by Nelson Campbell, to connect with others who share the same enthusiasm for plant based eating.

  4. Thanks for the post, It was intresting. I used to follow the articles of Dr.vijayanandreddy, he was one of the Best Oncology specialist in Hyderabad. While browsing i found this..It was very informative.

  5. Chinnababu sunkavalli June 30, 2022 at 12:21 am · Reply

    thank you for sharing this article

  6. thank you for sharing this information very useful

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About the Author

Dr. Ashwani Garg
Dr. Ashwani Garg

Dr. Garg is a board-certified family physician in private practice in Hoffman Estates and has been on staff at Sherman Hospital since 2004. About 2 years ago, he began a plant-based diet and a program of regular exercise, and saw his own health dramatically improve without the need for medications. He continues to promote these lifestyle changes to his patients, including healthy plant-based diets and exercise to improve patient health, and reducing medication where possible. Dr. Garg has twin boys, and enjoys spending time with them.