How Dietary Nutrients Affect Common Cancers and Other Chronic Disorders


Should you have genetic disposition to some health disorders, you may wish to know that they are likely to manifest themselves unless there are environment triggers to express these ‘defective’ genes. Arguably, the principal environment factors are our dietary and lifestyle habits which are acquired or learned in our lifetime since we aren’t born with these habits. Our parents, siblings, friends, peers, and/or colleagues can play a role in influencing the types of chronic health disorders we suffer later in life.

Wikipedia defines a chronic condition as “a human health condition or disease that is persistent or otherwise long-lasting in its effects”. Poor dietary/lifestyle habits can lead to or worsen common chronic health disorders such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, allergies, heart disease, osteoporosis, tumor growth, and cancer. While an ‘acute’ (severe and sudden in onset) health disorder is best treated by suppressing its symptoms with drugs and/or surgery, chronic conditions may be reversed by targeted dietary/lifestyle modifications and/or nutraceuticals (nutritional supplements). Of course, acute conditions can lead to chronic syndrome if causes for their chronicity are inadequately treated or reversed.



According to WHO, Malaysia has the highest rate of obesity in the S E Asia. Our local cocoa is rich in trans-resveratrol, which is known to mimic the positive health effects generated by caloric restriction (CR). Besides being a proven method of extending lifespan in different species of mammals, CR has positive effects on a wide range of metabolic and inflammatory disorders such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer (Steinbach et al. 1994). Many of us are reluctant to go through frequent fasting (or starving) to reduce calorie intake in order to live longer. Consuming adequate amount of foods and beverages rich in resveratrol – Huzhang tea, cocoa, dark chocolate, peanut, organic dark grape, blueberry, organic red wine – helps turn on our longevity gene Sirt1 and enhances body’s glucose uptake (Fisher-Posovszky et al. 2010). Cutting back on refined starch and sugar not only reduces excretion of the mineral chromium which is essential for enhancing effectiveness of our sugar-regulating hormone insulin, this dietary habit reduces our need for excessive insulin. Centenarians are known to have low insulin levels, better sugar control, and higher good HDL cholesterol. The principal contributor to obesity in this country is dietary sugar/starch, which when consumed in excess, prevents the stomach from secreting the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin. Instead, the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin is secreted leading to accumulation of excess visceral fats. Not feeling ‘full’ without consuming rice or noodle sounds like a contradiction in science since eventually our arteries and internal organs are filled with triglycerides (stored fats) and other oxidized/glycated fats/cholesterol to their maximum tolerable levels till a fatal heart attack or stroke happens.



Frying or deep-frying meat can destroy up to 32% of a key heart nutrient Coenzyme-Q10, but its destruction is minimal when boiling method is used (Weber et al.1997). Organ or red meat contains highly oxidizing iron, which can contribute to build-up of arterial plaques. However, excess iron may be blocked by having a strong tea or coffee soon after consuming foods rich in this mineral such as organ meat, red meat, cashew nut, and Chinese parsley (Ziip et al. 2000). A major trigger for heart attack may be hypertension, which can be promoted by excess intake of salt. However, foods rich in mineral potassium such as Sengkuang, ubi kayu leaf, and tomato may reverse the adverse effects of sodium.

It has been known the past two decades that cholesterol and dietary fats are unlikely to stick to arteries to form plaques unless they are oxidized or glycated. Several servings of food rich in antioxidants can help. Glycation happens when sugar attaches to protein or cholesterol molecules causing them to become dysfunctional. Our immune cells treat these oxidized or glycated protein or fats as ‘foreign’ and start mounting attacks against them leading to arterial plaque formation. Refined starch or sugar contributes significantly to glycation leading to chronic inflammation and heart disease. Your immune defence against infections is also lowered by excess sugar intake. Sugar that is unlikely to cause glycation is probably d-ribose. Contrary to popular belief, one of the worst sugars to consume in excess is fructose (fruit sugar) which has been linked to obesity, hypertension, elevated uric levels, kidney damage, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases (Johnson et al. 2007), insulin resistance, hypertriglyceridemia, and fatty liver disease (Vos 2014). It would seem nature creates fructose to help rot the fruit to ensure survival of the tree rather than to be consumed as a ‘nutrient’.



High intake of refined starch/sugar can cause insulin disorders. High blood insulin raises appetite for more food leading to higher weight (fat) gain and risk of heart disease and cancer. Additionally, high carbohydrate diet raises production of sex hormone binding globulins leading to lower levels of free testosterone in men and free estrogen in women. For adults with healthy liver and kidney functions, their sex hormones could be raised by consuming much less sugar/starch and a higher intake of protein-rich foods. Such a dietary change may be equivalent to taking some ‘aphrodisiac’ supplements.



Colon and breast cancers are the most common cancer death in this country for men and women respectively. As a metabolic disorder, incidence of cancer is strongly related to one’s dietary and lifestyle habits including low physical activity (Watson and Collins, 2011). Grilling and cooking meat or fish over open flame can form mutagenic compounds that damage our cellular DNA especially when sugar is added (Layton et al. 1995). It’s estimated that up 90% of all cancers might be prevented with proper nutrition since at least one-third of overall cancer deaths are linked to malnutrition (US-NCI, 2014).

Red and processed meat could promote colorectal cancer (Larsson and Walk, 2006; Cross et al. 2007), but risk is reduced by increasing intake of genistein-rich soy isolate (Qi et al. 2011), garlic (Dorant et al. 1993), fiber-rich fresh organic vegetables (Steinmetz et al, 1994), vitamin C rich fruits (Cohen et al. 1995) such as the local guava and bell peppers, legumes (Aune et al. 2011), tomato (Gionvannucci 1999), raw nuts, anchovy and deep-sea fish rich EPA/DHA fats (Hall et al. 2008). Generous daily servings of fresh anthyocyanin (ACNs)-rich organic vegetables (red cabbage, red radish, red onion, eggplant, black bean), black plum, Pistachio nut, Concord grape, red grape, berries (chokeberry, elderberry, blueberry, blackberry, cherry, raspberry) have been shown to significantly halt colon cancer growth (Zhao et al. 2004). There’re more than 600 varieties of naturally occurring ACNs, which are water-soluble plant colour pigments. These potent, colourful plant nutrients are not found in canned or highly processed foods. Despite occasional bad press reports on soy, consuming soy-based foods may prevent against colorectal cancer for years ahead especially in women (Gong et al. 2009). Globally, a higher tofu intake has been linked to lower risk of breast cancer (Zhu et al. 2011; Wu et al. 1996; Ziegler et al. 1993). Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbages are rich in cancer-fighting nutrients such as sulforaphane, indole-3-carbinol and glucosinolates which together can promote cancer apoptosis (programmed cell death) and to help trigger the expression of the tumor suppression gene p53 (Yap 2013).

While intake of EPA (active nutrient in fish oil) fat lowers breast cancer risk, a higher intake of long-chain saturated fats from processed foods can raise risk (Shannon et al. 2007).

Spices can do wonders as well. Flavonoids in turmeric and onions could reduce size and number of pre-cancerous lesions in our intestinal tract (Cruz-Correa et al. 2006). Consequently, curried dishes with added black pepper can suppress colon tumor (Rao et al. 1995). Ginger contains flavonoid gingerol-6, which could induce apoptosis and inhibit metastasis (spread of cancer) (Pan and Ho, 2008). Even fenugreek seeds containing diosgenin may have the same properties (Khoja et al. 2011; Raju and Rao, 2012).

Drinking daily a few cups of Chinese or Japanese tea rich in polyphenols may prevent cancer angiogenesis (growth of new blood vessels) (Cao and Cao, 1999) and block cellular DNA damage implication in carcinogenesis (cancer initiation) (Anderson et al. 2001).

A diet high in red tomato is cancer-protective (Franceschi et al. 1994), especially against prostate cancer (Etminan et al. 2004). Its active carotenoid lycopene can also be found in carrots, pink guava, watermelon, and green pepper. Even frequent intake of tomato sauce or paste may decrease risk of developing prostate cancer (Giovannucci et al. 2002). Carotenoids and retinoids (pro-vitamin A) from papaya and pumpkins may also lower the incidence of prostate cancers (Willis and Wians, 2003).

Lightly refined palm fruit oil is rich in carotenoids, tocotrienols and tocopherols, which have anti-tumor properties (Sigounas and Anagnostou, 1997). Alpha-carotene in sweet potato, pumpkin and carrot can help prevent metastasis (Tamimi et al. 2005).

Elevated stress and anxiety can cause sleep disturbances besides lowering one’s immunity and raising risk of diabetes. Foods rich in the protein L-tryptophan such as soy isolate, legumes, seeds, peanut, leafy vegetables and rice are used to produce brain-calming neurotransmitter serotonin which is then converted to the sleep hormone melatonin. Diabetic people have much higher risk of developing cancers since cancer/tumor cells are primarily sugar metabolizers (Rothkopp, 1990). Indeed, a very low sugar/carbohydrate (Ketogenic) diet can slow down progression of cancer (Simone et al. 2013).



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About Author

Dato’ Steve Yap

Masters’ in Metabolic & Nutritional Medicine (USF Med Sch);

Advanced Fellow, Anti-Aging Regenerative Functional Medicine (USA);

Fellow, Integrative Cancer Therapies (USA);

Nutritional Therapy Council Certified Practitioner (UK);

President, Federation of Complementary & Natural Medical Associations M’sia;

Complementary Medicine Director, DSY Wellness Longevity Center (

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