Melanoma is the least common, but most deadly form of skin cancer. The cancer begins in the melanocytes – the cells that produce pigment that are in the deepest of the five skin layers. About one quarter of melanomas develop from moles. To help prevent melanoma, the skin, which is our largest organ, must be looked after from the outside and from the inside.
We look after our skin from the outside by protecting it from damaging UV radiation, both from the sun and artificial sources like tanning beds. We protect it from the inside by our diet and lifestyle choices.
Protecting Our Skin from the Inside Out
The focus of nutrition and melanoma is on the prevention and protection from skin cancer. Diet has not been shown to be a treatment for cancer, so you must consider nutrition during treatment as complimentary to your main medical treatment. Once treatment has completed, your focus can shift to prevention and risk reduction.
Key Nutrition Strategies for Melanoma Prevention
A review review published in 2010 from researchers at the University of Colorado (1) outlined the results of studies published between 1970 and 2009.
Here are the nutrients (and their food sources) they summarized that are protective against melanoma in human studies.
- EGCG (Green tea)
- Grape seed proanthocyanidins (Grapes)
- Selenium (Brazil nuts, oysters, liver, canned tuna)
- Vitamin E (Almonds, avocados, and other nuts)
- Camellia oil (tea seed oil)
- Olive oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Oat beta-glucans (Oats and oatmeal)
- Rosemarinic acid (Rosemary, peppermint, lemon balm, oregano, sage, thyme)
In a similar type of study, published four years late in 2014, researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles again reviewed the research on the connection between diet and melanoma. In addition to the above list, they found a couple of other nutrients and foods that they recommend for prevention and these include:
- Lycopene (Processed tomato products)
- Fig latex (Figs)
An older study published in 1997 (3) details how Norwegian researchers were looking at associations between diet and skin cancer. In other words, they didn’t ask participants to change their diet. They simply asked them to complete a food frequency questionnaire to tell them what they normally ate and they were followed for 9-15 years to see who developed melanoma.
The results differed between the men and woman. First off, men tended to get melanoma on their backs and there was no association with diet. Women, on the other hand, tended to have melanoma on their legs. The women’s melanoma incidence went up with cod liver oil supplements, polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils) and alcohol consumption. But, what might be good news for you is that risk went down with coffee consumption.
Of course, this is not a clinical trial, merely an observational study looking for associations. But if you are a woman at risk of melanoma, you may want to think twice about taking cod liver oil supplements but… you can continue to enjoy your coffee. Regarding polyunsaturated fats, newer research shows that many vegetable oils (camellia, olive and cottonseed oil, which are polyunsaturated) have protective effects. I would take from that, that moderation is the key.
In addition to protecting your skin from harmful UV radiation, you can help to protect your skin from the inside out. A cancer risk reduction diet is one that is based on eating a plant-based, whole foods diet. In addition to this, be sure to include some of the foods that have shown specific protection against melanoma in human studies including green tea, grapes, Brazil nuts, oats, figs, ginseng, almonds, soy and flax among others.
- Clinical Dermatology 2010 Nov-Dec;28(6):644-9 Nutrition and melanoma prevention. Jensen JD1, Wing GJ, Dellavalle RP.
- Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 2014 Jul;71(1):151-60 Nutrition: the future of melanoma prevention? Tong LX, Young LC
- International Journal of Cancer: 71, 600-604 (1997) Diet and risk of cutaneous malignant melanoma: A prospective study of 50,757 Norwegian men and women. Marit Veirød, Dag Thelle, Petter Laake.
You can listen to a recording of a webinar from September 19, 2013 entitled a Nutrition and Melanoma Webinar hosted by Kim Jordan, MHA, RDN CNSD, and the Melanoma Research Foundation
Jean LaMantia is a registered dietitian, cancer survivor and author of The Essential Cancer Treatment Nutrition Guide and Cookbook. She provides one-on-one nutrition assessment and counselling for clients of CAREpath Inc. and you can find out more about her at www.jeanlamantia.com.