A more recent study discovered that trying out a traditional African diet instead of your regular western eating habits may help decrease the risk of colon cancer, according to scientists.
When African Americans participating in the study swapped the meat-heavy and high in carbohydrates diet with African meals rich in vegetables and beans of all kinds, researchers noticed that two weeks were enough to see a definite drop in the risk of colon cancer.
Colon cancer is high up in the leading causes of cancer deaths – number four in the UK and second in the west. Each year, more than a million people receive this diagnose worldwide.
Countryside Africans are 100 times less prone to developing colon cancer than African Americans, and scientists believe that the diet they are following plays an important role. Being one of the most affected demographics in general, researchers believe that a high-fiber diet might have a real positive effect on the rate of colon cancer development.
High-fiber or high-fat?
The experiment studied the diets of 20 Africans living in KwaZulu-Natal and compared them with those of 20 African Americans from Pittsburgh. The results showed that the African American group’s intake of fat and animal protein was three times the one consumed by the countryside Africans did, and their diet also seriously lacked dietary fiber.
Next phase included tests on the gut microbes collected from both groups. The different diets of the American and African had a significant effect on the type of populations found in the microbes of the gut.
The American group presented organisms that produced the chemical butyrate and broke down bile acids, whereas the countryside Africans developed more carbohydrate-fermenting bugs. According to the colonoscopies, scientists discovered that 9 Americans developed polyps – which can turn into tumors in some cases – but none of the countryside Africans had them.
Third phase of the experiment involved switching the diets; participants were invited to spend two weeks at local research centers where their eating habits were completely changed. Instead of consuming meals rich in fiber, as they were used to, the countryside Africans were given burgers and fries, hash browns and sausages – all very high in fat and protein.
On their side of the experiment, the African Americans were switched on fish tacos, bean soup, corn fritters and mango slices – a typical low-fat, high-fiber African diet.
After a fortnight, the researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Imperial College London studied the results and made comparisons. Significant reduction in colon inflammation could be noticed in the case of the African American group, as well as less biological markers for cancer.
High-fiber meals were a real treat for the health of African Americans – but the same cannot be said about the two weeks of the countryside African group; at the end of the experiment, the western diet seemed to have done some real damage: samples from their guts were associated with higher risk of colon cancer.
Study author Stephen O’Keefe, who works in Nature Communications, said the team was utterly surprised about the levels of change after just two weeks. They were expecting some changes to be visible following the new diets, but being able to see the changes mirrored in the two groups in such high rates was a total surprise.
It’s never to late to change your diet
One of their conclusions based on the results of the experiment is that it might never be too late to change one’s diet in order to reduce health risks such as the one of developing colon cancer.
When the risk of cancer decreased, researchers could also see drastic changes in the type of gut microbes. The countryside African diet was associated with a larger secretion of butyrate, a chemical known for fighting cancer. In contrast, the western diet, high in fat and protein, was associated with more microbes producing bile acids, which provide an environment for developing cancer.
Previous studies have concluded that high-fiber diets are benefic and linked to reduced colon cancer risk; however, it was not clear why fiber – while passing undigested into the colon – helps with that. This study has finally offered a viable theory, saying that such a diet changes the type of microbes that multiply in the gut, thus also changing the chemicals they produce.
However, it is not clear if such a dramatic change in diet for the African group would’ve meant a lower rate of cancer; only if they kept on following a western diet for years under regular monitoring could scientists be sure of their theory.
It is still solid evidence, according to Jeremy Nicholson, a senior co-author on the study, that the changes they saw during the African American experiment would have led to more cancer eventually.
This study proved that environment, diet and microbial genes play a much more important role in the possible development of cancers, especially when it comes to colon cancer. It also shows that other factors are involved, not just a lucky or unlucky draw of a genetic straw at birth. You also have a saying – and that might be even more important.
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