Reducing the Risk of Cancer Through Nutrition
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
No diet can ever promise to prevent a disease. However, nutrition and lifestyle do play a role in your chances of developing certain diseases, including cancer. The unfortunate truth is that 4 out of every 10 Americans will develop cancer during his or her lifetime. Let’s change these stats and reduce your risk of cancer by changing diet and exercise habits!
People are always asking me about what to eat for high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, fatty liver, etc. The best answer doesn’t exactly lie in what specific diet to follow, but rather just following a diet and exercise plan that helps you lose weight. If you are already a healthy weight, keep it there. I know this isn’t the answer everyone’s looking for, but it’s the most honest one I have. Maintaining a healthy weight should be the first step in managing a lot of these chronic diseases.
This fact is true about cancer prevention as well. Being overweight or obese has been clearly linked to increasing your risk of many cancers including breast, colorectal, endometrium (uterus lining), esophageal, kidney and pancreas.
If you need to lose weight, figuring out where to start can be overwhelming. Pay attention to your diet and see where your pitfalls are. Set small, realistic goals to help you change these habits. Need help? Meet with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for some expert guidance!
Increase Physical Activity
Physical activity has been shown to decrease the risk of different kinds of cancer including breast, colon, endometrium and prostate. The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, which breaks down to 30 minutes 5 days a week. This should be seen as a minimum goal. Not there yet? Increase your exercise gradually to prevent excessive soreness and injury.
Excessive alcohol intake increases the risk of several different kinds of cancer. So, how much are you allowed to have? For men, you are allowed 2 drinks per day. Women, you are allowed 1 drink per day. No, you cannot save them all up for Saturday night- that is the max you can have per day. One drink is considered:
12 oz of regular (5% ABV) beer
5 ounces of wine
1.5 oz of liquor
Eat Fruits and Vegetables
Eating fruits and vegetables can decrease your risk of developing several different kinds of cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends consuming a minimum of 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables (combined) on a daily basis.
The research world doesn’t have all the answers, but we can assume that fruits and vegetables decrease cancer risk for several different reasons. The first reason being that they have antioxidants. These are compounds found in foods that can help prevent or delay cell damage. Examples include vitamin A and E, beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene. Similarly, fruits and vegetables also contain phytonutrients, which have also been linked to decreased cancer risk. Phytonutrients are naturally occurring chemicals that provide plants their color, smell and flavor. Finally, fruits and vegetables have fiber which is also linked to decreased risk of cancer, especially colorectal cancer.
At this time, it is not recommended to buy antioxidant and phytonutrient supplements, as they have not been shown to decrease cancer risk. Instead, get these from food. To get a wide variety of antioxidants and phytonutrients, eat fruits and vegetables of every color. You don’t want to get in the rut of eating the same stuff every day- you may be missing out on specific nutrients if you are.
Choose Whole Grains
As stated earlier, fiber can help reduce the risk of cancer. Makes sure to choose whole grain crackers, breads and pastas over the white versions as these are packed with fiber. New to whole grains? Increase your fiber intake gradually to avoid feeling bloated and uncomfortable. Make sure to drink enough water, too!
Limit Processed Meats
The American Cancer Society recommends limiting processed meat consumption as it has been shown to increase the risk of colorectal and stomach cancer. This could be, in part, due to the nitrates used to cure meat. More and more products are being made “nitrate-free”, which most can agree are a better choice. My recommendation: save your hotdogs for a BBQ or baseball game, and don’t have bacon every weekend. Focus on preparing your own meats and other sources of protein whenever possible.
Limit Red Meat
Not only do we have to worry about processed meats, we also need to worry about red meat. Eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week increases the risk of colorectal cancer. Focus on getting your protein through chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, beans and lentils.
Avoid Cooking Meats at Very High Temperatures
Yes, you even have to worry about how you’re cooking the meat. Cooking at very high temperatures can form chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These chemicals may increase the risk of cancer. Cooking meat at temperatures above 300F and smoking meat generally are the worst in terms of HCAs and PAHs formation. So, what are you to do with this information? I would say limit smoked meat consumption, flip meat often when cooking, and avoid charring when cooking meat.
Limit Sodium Intake
A high salt intake may increase your risk of stomach, nasopharyngeal (between your nose and throat), and throat cancer. General recommendations state that sodium should be limited to 2,300 mg of sodium per day, which is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of salt. If you have high blood pressure, you may have to limit your intake further.
Aim for a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in processed and red meat. Limit your alcohol and exercise!