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Can you cure cancer with diet?

Can you cure cancer by diet alone?  Could it be as simple as changing the pH of your body from acid to alkaline?  A statement flying round the Internet insists that ‘Every single person who has cancer has a pH that is too acidic.’ It’s attributed to Nobel Prize winner Dr Otto Warburg whose argument was that cancer cannot survive in an alkaline environment and so we should all seek to alkalinise our bodies.

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One website goes as far as to say: “What you put in your mouth can determine life or death. Starve cancer to death by removing acidic food and liquids, thereby allowing oxygen to return to the cells and the body to return to a normal pH balance.”

Given people are at their most vulnerable following a diagnosis of cancer, the vehemence of the statement – and the suggestion that you are to blame for contracting cancer in the first place through your bad diet – is concerning.

Alkalinity is also big business.  There are copious books out there telling you how to follow an ‘alkaline diet’ and many websites sell products promising to turn your body alkaline.  At a price of course.  Tempted?  There’s just one fly in the ointment.  Warburg’s major work on cancer was written in 1962 and The American Institute for Cancer Research rejected the idea out of hand back in 2008.  So why is it still being advocated?  What is the truth?

‘All cancer bodies are oxygen depleted, highly acidic, and thus have a very low pH balance,’ insisted Dr Warburg.  He believed that cancer cells maintain a lower pH (as low as 6.0), due to lactic acid production and elevated levels of CO2.  He believed there was a firm correlation between pH and oxygen.  A higher (alkaline) pH meant a higher concentration of oxygen molecules while a lower (acidic) pH meant a lower concentration of oxygen.

His ideas have gained a wide acceptance in the world of natural medicine.   Alla Svirinskaya, a medically trained healer and author of Energy Secrets (Hay House) says, ‘Paying attention to the pH of our food really is at the cutting edge of nutrition and I guarantee that the new buzz in eating will no longer be a debate about whether you eat carbs or not, or what the GI of your food is – instead everyone will be asking what pH your food is.’

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She states that, for optimum health, the pH of our blood should be 7.4, in other words, alkaline. ‘When the pH of your body shifts too far to the acidic side, you tend to become ill. Excess acid accumulates in your bones and joints.  It has been said, “You are not what you eat, but what you absorb”. A stable pH helps you absorb food, vitamins and minerals in an optimum manner. It also will stabilise your emotions and reactions, as proven by much research.’

Bharti Vyas, author of The pH Balance Diet (Amorata Press) agrees:  ‘All the food we eat ‘burns’ with oxygen in our cells to produce energy – our fuel,’ she says. ‘This digestion process generates an internal ‘ash’ that is acidic, alkaline or neutral. When acidic residue accumulates internally, it slows the body down, causing low energy, poor health and weight problems.’

She goes on to say that, ‘If you’re regularly eating too many acid-forming foods, you will be more vulnerable to infection – from candida to frequent colds and flu… you are likely to have many minor, and some not so minor, symptoms.’

However detractors say the theory makes no sense whatsoever.

Dr Gabe Mirkin, associate professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and author of several books on fitness and nutrition pours scorn on the idea.  ‘No foods change the acidity of anything in your body except your urine,’ he says. ‘Your stomach is so acidic that no food can change its acidity. An entire bottle of calcium pills or antacids would not change the acidity of your stomach for more than a few minutes.’

All foods that leave your stomach are rendered acidic.  Then they enter the intestines where secretions from the pancreas neutralize the stomach acids. ‘So no matter what you eat, the food in the stomach is acidic and the food in the intestines is alkaline,’ continues Mirkin.  ‘You cannot change the acidity of any part of your body except your urine. Your bloodstream and organs control acidity in a very narrow range. Anything that changed acidity in your body would make you very sick and could even kill you.’

So can we confidently dismiss the idea and return to eating whatever we wish? It seems not.

Kevin O’Hagan, Health Promotion Manager for the Irish Cancer Society is keen to point out that diet is important, both for general health and following a cancer diagnosis. ‘Diet can help reduce the risk of cancer and it can also help you get back on track after a cancer diagnosis,’ he says. ‘Our simple advice to the general public and cancer survivors is to eat a healthy diet, be physically active and maintain a healthy weight.’

But what about the alkaline diet?  ‘Studies are not conclusive in this matter,’ he says. ‘More convincing evidence is required before we can recommend this particular diet.’

Nutritional therapist Lowri Turner, author of The S-Factor Diet (Duncan Baird)  is equally cautious.  ‘I think a dose of healthy scepticism is wise, particularly when dealing with cancer,’ she says. ‘No reputable complimentary therapist would ever suggest abandoning conventional cancer treatment for dietary changes, although they can be a useful adjunct.’

‘I don’t think the peer-reviewed research has established a link between an acidic diet and cancer,’ she continues. ‘However, there is a growing belief that our modern acidic diet – high in meat and grains and dairy – may cause inflammation in the body and this is now believed to be at the root of many illnesses. What we do know is that ‘lifestyle factors’ are a contributory cause to many illnesses, including cancer.  An unhealthy diet – one high in processed meats, high fat foods, sugar and dairy and alcohol – may be a factor in many diseases.’

So it seems we shouldn’t be too hasty.  By dismissing the alkaline diet altogether we could just be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Fretting over the precise pH of your body could be an additional worry when you’re already under stress from a cancer diagnosis.  But all the experts agree that, if you want to prevent cancer or kick it into touch, then it really is worth eating the most healthy foods you can.  Interestingly, those just may coincide with the alkaline diet.

Cancer-proof your diet?

The Irish Cancer Society recommends the following guidelines for a healthy diet that may help prevent cancer.

  • Vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and pulses should form the central part of your diet.  34 percent of people in Ireland eat less than the recommended five servings a day. These foods are generally low in calories and fat, while high in vitamins, minerals and fibre.  They also contain antioxidants that help protect cells in the body from damage that can lead to cancer.
  • Eat less salt.  The WCRF Diet and Cancer Report identified salt and salty foods as a likely cause of stomach cancer.  Irish people take almost twice as much salt as they need.
  • Cut down on red meat. More than 500g of red meat per week can increase the risk of certain cancers (e.g. bowel cancer). In general, limit your intake of foods that contain fat from animal sources.
  • Lose weight. There is also strong evidence that being overweight increases the risk for certain cancers.

Alkaline superfoods – the Magnificent Seven?

These foods are all reported to have an alkalising effect on the body, according to Bharti Vyas. They are also generally recognised as being very healthful – so it’s win-win.

  • Nuts: Almonds, chestnuts.
  • Grains: Amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, wild rice.
  • Fruit: Apples, apricots, bananas, blackberries, melons, figs, grapefruit, grapes, kiwi fruit, lemons, limes, mangos, oranges, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, strawberries, tangerines.
  • Vegetables: Artichokes, asparagus, aubergine, beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chicory, courgettes, cucumber, endive, fennel, green beans, kale, kelp, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, okra, onions, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkin, radishes, spinach (raw), sweetcorn (fresh, not tinned), sweet potato, watercress.
  • Sprouts: Alfalfa, bean sprouts, wheatgrass.
  • Spices: Garlic, ginger, parsley, sorrel.
  • Honey, tofu, goat’s milk/cheese, carob, soya. (Although tofu and soya are contentious – some nutritional therapists are concerned about their oestrogenic function).

Acidic foods – the Dirty Dozen

Bharti Vyas labels these as the acid-forming foods to avoid.  Most (but not all) health experts agree that the majority should be eaten in moderation.

  •          Meat:  beef, pork, bacon, sausages, burgers, pies, ham, faggots, all processed meats and barbecued meat.
  • All refined, packaged foods including the majority of cereals containing sugar.
  • All ready meals, ‘diet’ meals and ‘fast food’.
  • Wine, beer and spirits.
  • Carbonated drinks.
  • Fried food.
  • Eggs, cow’s milk, margarine.
  • Biscuits, cakes, crisps and snacks.
  • Ice cream.
  • White bread, white flour, refined pasta.
  • Sugar, salt.
  • Cranberries and green bananas.

The Inbetweeners

Some acid-forming foods are fine to eat in moderation (around 20 percent of your daily intake), says Vyas. This is where most health experts would probably disagree – putting lean protein, seeds, nuts, grains and pulses on the ‘good guy’ list.

  • Bread (ideally wholegrain, made from grains in the alkaline list).
  • Cherries, plums.
  • Chicken, lamb, turkey.
  • Fish (salmon, cod, sardines, haddock, tuna or any cold-water fatty fish).
  • Kidney beans, lentils, lima beans.
  • Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Rice (brown), rye, tortillas, oats
  • Eggs, cottage cheese, yoghurt.
  • Nuts (all)

Irish Cancer Society:  www.cancer.ie

Lowri Turner recommends What to Eat if You Have Cancer by Maureen Keane and Daniella Chase (McGraw-Hill).

This feature first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail.

(c) Jane Alexander

Jane Alexander is the author of numerous books on health and wellbeing.  See her Amazon page for a full list of titles (many now available for Kindle).

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