Food, Cancer & World War II

The years around World War II (WWII) were a turning point in the history of our well being. And in the decades that followed, the sixty-plus years that constitute most or all of a lifetime for a majority of us, we have been living a large and uncontrolled experiment. One result has been skyrocketing rates of cancer. Although we don’t usually think of it this way, there has been no time in human history and no place in the world where food quality, eating habits, and lifestyle have changed so fast and in so large a way.

Many believe that cancer strikes because of poor genetics or poor luck, because of factors that are outside our control. Some believe it’s simpler than that; it strikes because we’re living longer and have more time to develop the disease. Yet there is much evidence to suggest that some cancers strike because of the lifestyle choices we make, and because our eating habits and the quality of the foods we consume have deteriorated. No culture in all of human history has ever eaten as we do now.

How did it happen? How did the thread of well being that wove one generation to the next begin to unravel? One answer, I think, is that large-scale, continual change has been the reality for as long as most of us have been living. We’ve grown so accustomed to it that we rarely consider how unusual the extent and pace of this change has been. Further, the transformation of both our food supply and food habits promised to be “new and improved.” Without adequate perspective, most of us couldn’t know where these developments would lead or predict that the unraveling might destroy our garment of good health.

While it’s true that poor health is built into our modern food system, the story does not have to end here. We all have the power to step around this system and, in our own homes and without much difficulty, understand and undo many of these changes.

©Photo courtesy of:

©Photo courtesy of:

The following are specific examples of how our eating habits and food quality have changed since WWII. These examples are worth noting for two reasons: because they correlate with rising cancer rates, and because they are all under our control.

  • Introduction of refined vegetable oils and trans fats. Since WWII, we have transitioned from traditional fats like butter and olive oil to industrial vegetable oils and trans fats, which have no nutrients and can fuel cancer growth because of their high rates of omega-6 fats. In excess, omega-6 fats cause internal inflammation.

  • Feeding farm animals grain instead of grass. In response to a postwar increase in demand for animal foods, farmers implemented shortcuts to save time and money, chief among them feeding animals corn and soy (nearly all of it genetically altered) instead of grass. These seeds have an abundance of inflammatory omega-6 fats and nearly none of the beneficial omega-3 fats found in grass. In addition, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid thought to have important anti-cancer benefits, is found in foods that come from grass-fed animals. It is missing in animals that live on grain.

  • Reliance on antibiotics and hormones in raising livestock. It has become common for farm animals to be given antibiotics to promote growth, or simply to prevent disease rather than treat it, the latter compensating for methods of feeding and rearing that are inherently unhealthful. Many cows are also given hormones to fatten them faster and to increase their milk production. When we consume milk and meat from these cows, the hormones we take in can stimulate the growth of our own cells, including cancer cells.

  • Use of pesticides in growing food. The 1940s and 1950s marked the beginning of the pesticide era. Decades later, most of us carry internal traces of more than 200 environmental chemicals, many of which play a role in the initial development of cancer cells, and in the development of individual cancer cells into dangerous tumors. On a broader level, immune cells are able to work better and harder when they are protected from toxins.

  • Increased intake of sweeteners. Consumption of sweeteners has increased exponentially since WWII. Here, I am referring to white and brown sugar, and also to high-fructose corn syrup, which was developed and marketed in the last 40 years and is toxic to our bodies. These sweeteners weaken immune strength. They also cause blood sugar spikes that prompt a surge of insulin and insulin growth factor (IGF). This surge makes cells, including cancer cells, grow faster and enhances their ability to spread into neighboring tissue.

  • Reliance on processed and packaged foods. Postwar prosperity stimulated our appetite for processed and packaged foods; these have been sold to us as a convenience but they are more correctly impostors: looking like food and filling us as food does, but providing little or no nourishment and even causing harm. Most processed foods contain refined vegetable oils and trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup or sugar, and white flour. Processed foods may look like the foods that nourished past generations but they are less nutritious, they promote inflammation, and they encourage weight gain, all of which increase cancer risk.

  • Reliance on a few ingredients to provide all our nutrients. Since WWII, the pace of our lives has quickened in unimaginable ways and, as we have become busier, our diets have become less diverse. We used to get nutrients from a variety of foods. Yet today, according to scientist Stephan Guyenet, processed foods made with white flour, sugar and refined vegetable oils comprise more than 50% of our calories. These food choices harm us in two ways: by the damage they cause in their own right, and by the way they crowd out foods that offer a diversity of nutrients for detoxifying carcinogens, strengthening immunity, and quieting internal inflammation.

Inflammation: The Tie that Binds

Nearly all of the changes described above increase inflammation inside of us, which matters because inflammation is the underpinning of cancer and other modern illnesses. Even among those who have cancer, patients with the lowest levels of inflammation have the longest lives. According to Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, inflammation levels, which are easy to measure, are a better indicator of patient survival than is overall health at the time of a cancer diagnosis.

Our understanding of inflammation and its role in disease is relatively new, which is why we haven’t heard much about it when it comes to disease prevention. Another reason is that that avoiding inflammation is inexpensive, not patentable, and doesn’t require a prescription, so it’s not in anyone’s interest to spend time promoting preventive measures.

Changes We Have the Power to Make

It is always easier to avoid a problem than it is to fix it after it has happened. Yet it is not too late for us to reconnect with food that is real rather than manufactured, and to reduce our chances of getting cancer or of having it recur. The following are ideas you may want to consider for moving forward–choosing a pace that feels comfortable to you:

  • Limit refined vegetable oils and trans fats like margarine especially those made from corn, soybeans, safflower, cottonseed, and sunflower seeds. Replace them with butter from pastured hens, olive oil, or virgin organic coconut oil. On the rare occasions when these won’t do, refined coconut oil or canola oil may work as a back-up. While these two oils come with some considerations and might best be used moderately, they are not thought to be inflammatory.

  • Look for meat, dairy products, and eggs from animals raised on grass and from animals that have not received antibiotics or hormones. Chickens always receive some grain, but they should be raised primarily on pasture; labels will say “grass fed” or “pastured.” Animal products will also be labeled “free of antibiotics and hormones.” (A certified organic label says nothing about whether an animal was raised on grass, but it is an indication that animal foods are free of antibiotics and hormones.)

  • Whenever possible, opt for food that is grown without pesticides. Organic certification is one proof of purity, but you can also ask the farmer who grows your food. You may remember from past posts that the Environmental Working Group publishes a shopper’s guide to pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables. This guide can help you prioritize your organic purchases.

  • Consider filtering your tap water to minimize your intake of toxins like fluoride, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. Carbon and reverse-osmosis filters both do the job well.

  • To the extent you can, cook at home. This may challenge you, but remember that most restaurants use the cheapest quality ingredients: refined sugar, industrial vegetable oils, and meat and dairy products from animals fattened on grain and given antibiotics and hormones. When you eat out, you can control what you eat, but not the quality of what you eat–and quality is what matters most.

  • Remember to read labels. To avoid listing sugar as the first and largest ingredient, food manufacturers often list it under many different names: evaporated cane juice, molasses, corn syrup, honey, sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, and more. Watch for and avoid these hidden sugars, as well as refined vegetable oils and white flour.

  • Aim for reducing your intake of sweets and keep in mind that, because sugar can be addictive, it may take time–a month or even longer–for sugar cravings to subside.

  • As often as possible, replace white flour with whole-wheat flour. See Bold Baking #1 for ideas on how to make this substitution work.

  • Broaden your diet to include a variety of plant foods that promote health and work against many common forms of cancer. It’s ideal to eat all sorts of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. You can supplement these with high-quality meat, fish, eggs, or dairy if you make these foods a part of your diet.

  • Learn to recognize and appreciate living fermented foods, which can inhibit the growth of certain cancer cells and play a role in detoxification. See Living Foods.

  • Try to work cancer-protective foods into your diet. For individual cancer cells to develop into dangerous cancers, and for existing cancers to spread, they need new networks of blood vessels to feed them. Inflammation enables the creation of new blood vessel networks, so foods that reduce inflammation are cancer protective. These include certain green teas, mushrooms, spices, and herbs. For more information, refer to Foods that Fight Cancer, by Beliveau and Gingras.

In Closing

We need ways of food gathering, cooking, and eating that support good health rather than work against it–and that assume we have patience, a willingness to learn, and a durable vision of what a good life entails. Cooking at home; knowing the farmers who grow our food; eating in season; relying on a variety of fresh ingredients that are free of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones; consuming only grass-fed animal products; limiting our use of sweeteners, and using traditional fats are the threads we can use to re-weave the fabric of our well being.

Related Recipe: Cancer-Fighting Green Tea

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul