Updated 13 April 2017

Lifestyle and diet as causal factors of cancer

Sticking to these three simple rules, will prevent 80 percent of cancers.


According to Dr Carl Albrecht, cancer specialist attached to the Cancer Association of South Africa, 80 percent of cancers can be prevented if people were to adhere to three simple rules:

  • Stay out of the sun
  • Eat healthy food including lots of fruit and vegetables
  • Stop smoking

Skin cancer

White Australians and South Africans have the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world, but 90 percent of all skin cancers are curable – if detected early.

Traditional diet

According to Sassman, black people living in rural areas have a high incidence of oesophageal cancer as a result of their traditional diet, which contains very little fibre. Other factors contributing to this are cooking methods, grain storage methods and a high consumption of home-brewed beer. The incidence of these cancers becomes much lower if people move to the cities where fresh fruit and vegetables are more readily available.

Smoking and drinking

Smoking and drinking also appear to play a major factor in the incidence of cancer. Dr Albrecht said that 30 percent of all cancers are smoking-related. As more and more women have become smokers in recent decades, so the incidence of lung cancer has risen amongst them. While breast cancer appears to be oestrogen-related in some way, it has also been noticed that a fair percentage of women who develop breast cancer consume fair amounts of alcohol.

Genetic factors

Genetic factors also play a role, according to Dr Carl Albrecht. It does sometimes happen that healthy young people who get exercise, eat healthily, stay out of the sun, don’t smoke and don’t drink, get cancer. To a certain degree, it remains a mysterious disease, but one, if detected early, can mostly be sorted out by means of the right medical attention.

Diet the determining factor?

Epidemiologists who have studied the prevalence of cancer amongst the different populations of the world have found that diet determines 40 percent of all cancers. The incidence of different types of cancer in different regions points to diet being instrumental in the causing of cancer. Studies appear to disprove genetic determinants, as cancer incidence amongst immigrants to a new country quickly takes on the characteristic incidence of those already living there.

Eating the wrong type of food can increase one’s chances of getting cancer by 40 percent. Eating the right kind of food containing cancer-fighting molecules, such as fruit and vegetables, can make a huge difference.

Folic acid

Scientists have found that folic acid and B vitamins play a huge role in cancer prevention, especially colon cancer. It occurs naturally in spinach and green beans, but loses 80 percent of its properties when cooked. When it is synthetically produced, it loses nothing in the cooking process.

Folic acid has been found to counteract birth defects, such as spina bifida. It also reduces the incidence of heart attacks and lowers the prevalence of cancer in a population. In the fight against heart disease, the intake of folic acid is just as important as the avoidance of cholesterol. Folic acid appears specifically to counteract cancer of the oesophagus and the colon.

Many first world countries enrich refined flour products with folic acid. The USA add 1400 micrograms of folic acid per kilogram of flour. The first studies have appeared finding that birth defects have decreased since this has been done. Furthermore, it seems to slow down degenerative diseases and reduce the incidence of heart diseases.

South African authorities and folic acid in flour products

South Africa has expressed interest in enriching flour products. As we are a developing country and much poorer than the USA, one would expect a far higher addition of folic acid to our refined flour products. Oddly enough, it has been decided by the South African Health Department that only 700 microgram per kilogram will be added, as millers believe mistakenly that folic acid will make wheat products yellow, creating the impression that they are of a low quality. This is completely erroneous, as folic acid does not colour the products at all. Rather than add 700 micrograms, the South African Health Department should be adding at least 3000 micrograms.

The modern diet and fatty acids

Another major problem of the modern diet is that we consume far too many Omega 6 fatty acids. These are found in fatty foods, margarine, and most importantly, sunflower cooking oil. Omega 3 fatty acids, which are good for us and help in the fight against cancer, are contained in cold-pressed olive oil and the much cheaper Canola Oil. Many products also contain a combination of the two – a fact which is not always made clear on the packaging.

“Something has gone seriously wrong with our modern diet”, says Dr Albrecht. The incidence of cancer, especially breast and prostate cancer, has increased dramatically. The former seems to increase dramatically in a population where the per capita fat intake is high.

Refined flour products

The problem lies with the foundation of the food pyramid, namely refined flour products, such as white bread and pasta. The enormous consumption of salt and refined sugar is also a problem. Our salt consumption is up to ten times higher than it should be. Furthermore, our bodies do not need to consume sugar, as we can produce our own from carbohydrates.

Refined foods used to be only available to the very rich, whereas the general population tended to eat more healthy and less expensive wholewheat products. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it became easy to refine all wheat, thereby removing much of the nutritional value it contained.

The diet of the hunter-gatherer resulted in his having a 1/1 ratio of Omega 6/ Omega 3 fatty acids. The ration in the USA today is 10/1. It is not difficult to see that this change must have some impact.


More and more studies have been done recently about anti-carcinogenics. Huge studies have been done in the USA with the help of the so-called Cohort Group of 100 000 volunteers, who are all in some way involved with the medical professions. Professor Walter Willet has also found that the lack of protective factors appears more important than excessive harmful factors in the diet.

It has been found that the red colourant in tomatoes suppresses the incidence of prostate cancer by up to 50 percent. Tomatoes in all its forms, cooked, raw, pureed in tins or tomato sauce is a powerful anti-oxidant and should be consumed by everyone in vast quantities. It is also cheap and freely available.

There are chemicals in garlic and onion that stimulate the production of enzymes that neutralise cancer-producing cells.

Cancer occurs when there is a mutation of the DNA. It is when something goes wrong with the DNA that cancerous cells gain a foothold. Many of the foods we eat that contain anti-oxidants and anti-carcinogenics and other cancer-fighting chemicals, close ranks around our DNA, which prevents cancerous mutation. The multi-chemical defence system required to protect our DNA, is made up of a very wide variety of molecules.

Read more:
Cancer and your diet
Smoking and cancer


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