Last week I did an evening nutrition presentation at the Odette Cancer Center at Sunnybrook Hospital. Everyone in the audience either had cancer or was a caregiver of someone with cancer. It was a humbling experience. I was honoured to be there. Cancer can be a scary disease. The good news is this – you can reduce your risk significantly if you do these five things:
1. Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
After not smoking, being at a healthy weight is the most important thing you can do to prevent cancer. Most people don’t know this. This is true for many cancers, but especially for post-menopausal breast cancer, as well as cancers of the esophagus, gallbladder, kidney, pancreas, endometrium, ovaries and colon. Fat cells are biologically active. They don’t just sit there. They pump hormones into the bloodstream and create inflammation in the body, which is like fuel on the fire for cancer cell growth. Excess fat around your belly (abdominal fat) is especially dangerous. This kind of fat really feeds the fire.
2. Keep Your Body In Motion
Regular physical activity reduces your risk of getting cancer, dying of cancer and having cancer return. This is especially true for breast and colon cancer, but for other cancers too. The American Cancer Institute recommends getting at least 30 minutes of moderate activity, like brisk walking, daily. More vigorous activity and longer workouts are definitely beneficial too. Regular physical activity helps keep hormone levels healthy, decreases inflammation in the body, boosts immunity and helps with the maintenance of a healthy body weight. Going for a daily walk or workout, however, is not enough. Prolonged sitting is a risk factor all by itself. Researchers from the University of Regensburg in Germany reviewed 43 studies, involving over 4 million people and 69,000 cancer patients. For every two hour increase in overall sitting time, lung cancer risk increased by 6%, colon cancer by 8%, and endometrial cancer by 10%. If you must sit, get up every 30 minutes and move for a full two minutes before sitting back down again.
3. Alcohol Causes Cancer
Alcohol (ethanol) is classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is linked to seven different cancers, including cancers of the breast, colon, larynx (voice box), liver, esophagus, mouth, and throat. The risk increases with the volume of alcohol consumed, especially at an intake of 3 or more drinks a day. Combining smoking with drinking greatly increases the risk, especially for cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx and esophagus. For some cancers, including cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, and esophagus, even light drinking (up to 1 drink a day) can increase risk. That’s why organizations such as the American Institute for Cancer Research state that the best protection against cancer is to avoid alcohol entirely. This message is particularly important for those who have a family history of cancer, especially for breast and colon cancer. If you do choose to drink (alcohol can benefit heart health), men should consume no more than two drinks daily and women no more than one. Consuming lots of folate-rich foods, like dark green and orange vegetables and fruit, and legumes (beans and lentils) may lessen the alcohol-cancer risk.
4. Limit Red Meat, Avoid Processed Meat
The link between colon cancer and red meat, especially processed meat, is overwhelming. To reduce your risk the Canadian Cancer Society recommends limiting red meat (beef, lamb, pork) to 3 servings or fewer per week. One serving is about the size of a deck of cards (3oz/85g). They also recommend that you only consume processed meats, like sausages, bacon, hot dogs, pepperoni and cold cuts, on special occasions; for example, ham for a holiday dinner or a hot dog at a sporting event. Red meat contains heme-iron and other substances, which in excess can damage body cells. Preservatives, including nitrites and nitrates added to processed meats can create carcinogens in your gut. Cooking meat at high temperatures and until well-done is also carcinogenic. Pre-marinating your meat in healthy ingredients (like extra virgin olive, herbs, spices and garlic) and cooking meat at more moderate temperatures can reduce the amount of carcinogens formed.
5. Plant Foods Protect Against Cancer
Foods that come from plants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds) contain nutrients, fibre and antioxidants that reduce the risk of cancer. They help prevent damage to DNA (the blueprint our cells use to reproduce), turn on genes that protect against cancer, turn off genes that promote cancer, reduce inflammation and so much more. Foods that show good cancer-fighting potential include apples, berries, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale, dark green and orange fruits and vegetables, pomegranate juice, flaxseeds, beans, green tea, herbs and spices, onions, garlic, and healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil.
Lessons Learned: Reduce your risk of cancer by maintaining a healthy body weight, being active for at least 30 minutes daily, limiting sitting time, drinking alcohol in moderation (if at all), limiting red meat to 3 times weekly, avoiding processed meats, and loading up on plant foods.