By Ross Walker

It’s often been said that ‘you are what you eat’, but could it also be – as many people have suggested for a long time – that many common diseases are also what we eat and how we cook what we eat? I, as well as many other health professionals, have been saying for many years that many common diseases are linked to our modern lifestyle.

There’s no doubt that following the five keys to good health markedly reduces the risk for all diseases by around 70%, and a recent study has shown a reduction in cardiovascular disease by 83%.

1. Quit all addictions

2. Seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night is as good for your body as not smoking

3. Nutrition: eat less, and eat more naturally

4. Exercise three to five hours per week, in some form

5. Happiness is, no doubt, the best drug on the planet

Three recent disturbing reports have linked common aspects of Western diets with diverticular disease and also cancer risk. The first report was part of the Male Physicians Trial in Boston, which followed 46,500 doctors for an average of 26 years. One component of the trial was for the doctors to fill in a food questionnaire every four years. Specifically, to look at intake of red meat, poultry and fish and, in this case, the link to diverticular disease. When they looked at red meat intake, the higher the intake, the higher risk of diverticular disease whereas more poultry and fish reduced the risk. Specifically, they compared the doctors who never ate red meat with those who would consume red meat at least six times per week.

Red meat intake was also associated with an increased intake of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, other painkillers, cigarette smoking, being sedentary and reduced dietary fibre. Those doctors with an increased intake of fish and poultry were also more likely to use aspirin, be non-smokers and be regular exercisers. After controlling for all of these factors, men with the highest red meat intake versus those with the lowest intake had a 58% increased risk for diverticular disease. Strangely, the strongest risks occurred with the highest intake of unprocessed meats. Swapping red meat for fish and poultry reduced this risk by about 20%.

Those with the higher intakes of red meat also had higher levels of C-reactive protein and ferritin, both markers for inflammation. High levels in the blood stream of these two proteins were also linked to a higher rate of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, again through the common factor of high inflammatory risk. It is believed that high intake of red meat has a direct effect on the gut microbiome. Unprocessed meats typically require higher temperatures for cooking, which release a number of chemicals that may lead to damage in the bowel wall.

A number of studies in the past have also linked high consumption of grilled, barbecued or smoked meats to an increased risk for breast cancer. This particular study followed just over 1500 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid 1990s. All answered a food questionnaire every five years and were followed for over 17 years. During this time, 597 women died, of which 40% died of breast cancer. Those with the highest intake of grilled, barbecue or smoked meats prior to diagnosis had a 23% increased risk for all-cause death, compared with those who had the lowest intake, at the start of the trial.

Finally, a report from the Food Standards Agency - UK (FSA) has recently launched a campaign about the potential damage from acrylamide, the chemical which is formed when starchy foods are subjected to high temperatures. This new campaign is called “Go for Gold”, and suggests that people should cook all of these particular types of foods to a much lighter, golden-yellow colour rather than burning foods to much darker colours. This includes foods such as potatoes, breads, chips and other cereal based products. The dangers of acrylamide have been discussed for a number of years, but this recent report continues to highlight the potential issues of overcooking food.

When combining the results of all three reports there is a common message. It may not be the foods themselves that are the problem, but the way we are cooking the foods. The Aussie barbecue is a tradition, but should not be seen as a licence to chargrill foods to a state where the meat is not only well done, but almost black. The dangerous chemicals released by overcooking are almost certainly causing more health issues than the food itself.

Let’s not forget the wise words of the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, when he said: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.