The Role of Nutrition
in Cancer Prevention

On Tuesday, June 09 the first discussion, part of newly established SME Connect´s  Initiative Healthy Lifestyle at Work & Home led by Working Group on Health and Nutrition, took place to explore the role of nutrition in cancer prevention while highlighting the SME sector with the participation of Tanja Milin Horvat, Public Health, Pharmaceuticals & Medical Devices, foodstuffs, GMO at Permanent Representation of Croatia to the EU; Christine Schneider MEP, Member of ENVI & AGRI Committees, Shadow Rapporteur Farm to Fork and Chair of SME Connect´s Working Group on Health & Nutrition; John F. Ryan, Director for Public Health, Country Knowledge, Crisis Management of the European Commission; Prof. Ian Rowland, Emeritus Professor of Human Nutrition of the University of Reading; Andrea Bertocco, Director Scientific Affairs EMEA of Herbalife Nutrition and María Soraya Rodríguez Ramos MEP, Member of ENVI Committee and Member of the MEPs Against Cancer (MAC).



Tanja Milin Horvat opened the debate, highlighting that the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the work on other important topics and shifted some of the priorities of the Croatian presidency. However, cancer prevention remains high on the agenda. The National Plan for Caner shows that unhealthy diets and the lack of physical activity are one of the three most preventable causes of cancer together with tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption. It is important to change the lifestyle at an early age which is highly beneficial for reducing the risk of cancer. She emphasized the importance of the Europe´s Beating Cancer Plan and encouraged all cross-sectorial actors to contribute. The efforts aree currently being made to achieve feasible and sustainable cancer prevention in the European Union and to understand the role of nutrition in our overall health.

It is very much in the interest of employers to encourage their stuff to make healthy decisions. – Christine Schneider MEP

Christine Schneider MEP pointed out that over 1,9 million people died of cancer in 2018 across the EU Member States. 1 out 3 of these cancers were preventable. She called attention to plant-based diets with a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes which lowers the risk of developing cancer. Moreover, Ms Schneider stressed the fact that 2 out of 3 of European employees are employed by SMEs and hence how important it is having SMEs engaged in the EU health topics. There is an urgent need to promote healthy nutrition to maintain healthy body weight and to avoid physical inactivity to develop healthy dietary habits already in childhood. As Chair of SME Connect Working Group on Health & Nutrition Christine Schneider believes that the newly established  Initiative on Healthy Lifestyle at Work & Home can be one of the tools for EU stakeholders to engage cross-sectorial actors in the discussions on both the Farm to Fork Strategy and Europe´s Beating Cancer Plan.

Involving ourselves in the discussion with SMEs and with business is something which is for us a natural part of public health discussion because this is also in interest in a healthy society and healthy workforce. – John F. Ryan, Director for Public Health, Country Knowledge, Crisis Management of the European Commission

The European Commission’s Director of Public Health, John Ryan, assured that despite the current focus on COVID-19, cancer prevention and treatment remains a priority for the Commission and therefore will adopt the action plan on cancer before the end of this year. He stated that Europe´s Beating Cancer Plan is one of the flagships initiatives of European Commission´s President Ursula von der Leyen in the area of public health. In her political guidelines, she determines that Europe plans to fight cancer and plans to support all Member States in improving cancer control and care. The overall objective is to reduce people suffering from cancer and to decrease health inequalities between and within the Member States while putting European citizen and patients in the centre of this plan. However, John Ryan stressed the fact that only roughly 3% of the health budget of the Member States is invested in cancer prevention while 97% in cancer care. The Commission highlights in the cancer plan that prevention can lower the burden on our health care system as according to estimations the economics of cancer is up to 100 billion Euros annually. In his speech, Ryan also put special emphasis on the SME ecosystem as it is clear that the governance and public health authorities will not change the situation on the ground. Thus, it is important that all stakeholders and SMEs as well as food business operators, supermarkets, caterer and others, have an important role to play in how food is promoted, prepared, transported etc., as they are the once shaping the market and influencing the consumers ´ diet and dietary choices through food pricing, marketing and advertisements, which all together form the phrase “commercial determents of health”. 

Over 1 in 3 people will develop cancer in their lifetime. – Prof. Ian Rowland, Emeritus Professor of Human Nutrition of the University of Reading

Professor Ian Rowland stated that cancer is the second most common cause of mortality in the European Union. Over 1 in 3 people will develop cancer in their lifetime. He explained how we can know that an unhealthy lifestyle is a determent of cancer by providing an example of a study of Japanese migrants to the US that suffered from substatial number of cancer cases due to poor diet and lifestyle. Overall, diet, alcohol, and the lack of exercises account for around 20-30% of cancer incidence. However, obesity is the second highest cause of cancer in many EU countries. It is the diet what matters, rather than single food. A western diet which is high in red and processed meat, low in fruits and vegetables and fibre is therefore associated with a higher risk, than plant-based diets in which 2 out of 3 of the food commodities are made up from plants and only 1 out of 3 from animal products. He compared the Western Diet with the Mediterranean Diet which offers a high intake of fruits and vegetables, wholegrain, legumes and nuts and low consumption of red meat and refined sugar, hence reducing the risk of developing cancer by up to 28%. A pesco-vegetarian diet instead leads to a 43% reduction in cancer risk. His take-home message was to adopt plant-based diets, to maintain healthy body weight and regular physical activity to lower the development of cancer.

 The top 10 causes of the global burden of diseases for the most common death and disability combination for the EU, were highlighted by Andrea Bertocco. He underlined that the lifestyle is beside nutrition a risk factor to develop cancer as 15-20% of cancer is caused by smoking. He divided the quantity and quality factors of nutrition and physical activity and stated that with the growing population the incidence of obesity also grows. Women are less lucky than men, he said, as 20% of women are more likely to develop cancer in their lifetime compared to 14% of men. He underlined the urgent need to slow down the negative shift of the nutrition transition, meaning the need towards a more plant-based diet in combination with calorie control and increased fibre consumption. We need to promote a nutrient-dense but low-calorie diet. He also underlined that meal replacements contribute to weight loss and to maintain the weight after weight loss, hence lower the risk of obesity and cancer. Moreover, he highlighted the importance of education of the communities and in schools and the role of social media in this fight against cancer.

A lot of SMEs in Europe are already making important advances. – María Soroya Rodríguez Ramos MEP

María Soroya Rodríguez Ramos MEP talked about the initiative MEPs against Cancer which supports the European Parliament in the fight against cancer in the European Union. She also highlighted Europe´s Beating Cancer Plan because the best fight against cancer is its development, hence the prevention. In this fight, she linked the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Biodiversity Strategy and the Circular Economy Strategy as great allies to ensure food safety and a healthy more affordable diet. She underlined the importance of consumer information through nutrition labelling and stated the important role of SMEs in the improvement of a healthier diet and the promotion of healthier habits in the fight against cancer. It is fundamental that SMEs provide healthier food choices with more fruits and vegetable in the canteens´ menus and inspire their employees to exercise while encouraging a healthier lifestyle. She stated that initiatives like the Healthy Lifestyle at Work & Home contribute in a substantial way to the goal everyone has: to have a healthier lifestyle and diet to fight the disease, causing large numbers of death in Europe every year.