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Cancer specialists' bad news for meat lovers

However, the Maasai eat much more red meat than the average Westerner but remain in excellent health.

In Summary

• Colorectal cancer is the third most prevalent cancer cases in Nairobi, with 10.3 per cent rate, according to the National Cancer Institute director Dr Alfred Karagu.

• However, researchers are still intrigued by the Maasai, who eat much more red meat than the average Westerner but remain in excellent health.

Residents pack goat meat before distribution in Isiolo./FILE
Residents pack goat meat before distribution in Isiolo./FILE

Cancer specialists have more bad news for lovers of red meat and refined grains such as wheat — the so-called Western diet.

The specialists say current studies show such a diet significantly increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer in both men and women.

Red meat is one of the most controversial foods in the history of nutrition, but Dr Nazik Hammad yesterday told journalists in Nairobi that meat is not being unfairly targetted. 

 
 
 

"Colorectal cancer used to be rare in Africa but has now become common as people abandon African foods like tubers, whole grains, and vegetables, for more western dishes that are easy to prepare," she said. 

Colorectal cancer is the third most prevalent cancer cases in Nairobi with 10.3 per cent rate, according to the National Cancer Institute director Dr Alfred Karagu.

However, researchers are still intrigued by the Maasai, who eat much more red meat than the average Westerner but remain in excellent health.

Part of the explanation given is while Maasai cattle are free-range and grass-fed, many of today's cattle are fed grain-based feed and given growth-promoting hormones and antibiotics.

Some meat products are also highly processed, smoked, cured, then treated with nitrates, preservatives, and various chemicals.

"Most of the known risk factors for colorectal cancer are lifestyle-based which include smoking, red meat consumption, obesity and lack of physical activity," said Dr Agnes Waweru, a clinical oncologist who spoke to journalists at Nairobi Hospital yesterday.

In January last year, a study led by a Harvard nutritionist and published in the journal JAMA Oncology, found a clear link between the western diet and increased risk for cancer.

 
 
 

Researchers followed more than 120,000 adults over 26 years and found a 44-per-cent risk increase for men, and 22-per-cent for women who consumed such a diet (even after adjusting for other factors, such as high body mass index and decreased physical activity).

Yesterday, former chief government pathologist Dr Geoffrey Mutuma said it is impossible to fight cancer effectively in Kenya without a proper national cancer registry.

Dr Mutuma founded cancer registries in all provincial hospitals in 2000 but today they remain only in Nairobi, Kisumu, and Eldoret.

"The cancer registry is the most important in cancer control. In fact, it's the starting point. Until you know the numbers you can't do anything," he told the Star yesterday.

"Cancers are different in every region. The cancers found in Meru are different from those in Makueni, what we have now have are mostly estimates. When each county has a registry they will know what to invest in. For instance, in rural areas they need to invest more in preventing cervical cancer as opposed to breast cancer, which is more common in urban areas," he said. 

Dr Mutuma now runs the Zambezi Hospital in South C, which specializes in cancer treatment.

Earlier, Health CS Sicily Kariuki urged Kenyans to go for routine testing because many cancers can be cured if detected early. 

"We need to adopt a more promotive, preventive approach. I challenge everyone to understand that early screening of non-communicable diseases like cancer has better outcomes," she said.

Cancer is the name given to a collection of related diseases, in which body cells divide and grow uncontrollably.

University of Nairobi don, Prof Nicholas Abinya, says many cancers have no known cause and it is difficult to prevent them.

"If you went there (mass screening) and even fired up the entire population, you would end up making everybody anxious about the risk of developing cancer," he told the Star.

"There are those cancers which, even if you find out early and treated early, you may not change the outcome in a significant way."