This content authored by: Amanda Mondini, RD, LD, Clinical Dietitian, Thompson Cancer Survival Center
Can nutrition help prevent cancer? Yes!
Keep reading to learn more.
Some risk factors for cancer are non-modifiable, meaning that they cannot be changed. For example, you cannot change your genetics, family history, age, gender, race, and ethnicity. However, here’s the good news: for the most part, you CAN control the foods you eat and your lifestyle choices, which also play a large role in calculating cancer risk.
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has developed several evidence-based, key recommendations for preventing cancer. I’ve condensed their findings into 3 recommendations and expanded on them below. Please visit the AICR’s website for additional ideas and suggestions.
Focus on Plants
Plants are a wonderful source of phytochemicals, many of which have been shown to fight cancer. And, you don’t have to be vegetarian or vegan to increase your plant intake. A helpful way to increase your plant consumption is by following the AICR’s model of eating, called the “New American Plate”.
The New American Plate is one in which vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans make up 2/3 (or more) of each meal, and animal protein makes up 1/3 (or less) of the same meal. It is important to note that some plant foods have greater value in fighting cancer than others. For example, filling up 2/3 of your plate with white rice will not have the same effect as filling up 2/3 of your plate with asparagus, carrots, and brown rice (contains fiber).
If increasing your plant intake sounds a little daunting, remember that Rome was not built in a day. Slowly start to incorporate more plants into your diet by snacking on them or finding new recipes to complement their specific flavor profile. I used to dislike Brussels sprouts until I found this recipe. The balsamic glaze adds the perfect amount of sweetness to what can be a quite bitter vegetable. I love knowing that I am eating a vegetable that reduces my risk of mouth, esophageal, stomach, and colon cancers.
Limit Certain Foods
Like I tell my patients, food should not have morality ascribed to it. You are not “good” or “bad” for eating certain foods. However, some foods are not as helpful to us health-wise and therefore it is best to enjoy them in moderation.
Foods to limit include red meat (beef, pork, lamb), processed meat (bacon, sausages, ham, salami, hot dogs), sugar-sweetened beverages, and alcoholic beverages. Some of these foods alone have been shown to increase the risk of certain cancers. Others have been shown to increase the likelihood of weight gain, being overweight, and obesity. This is concerning since having excess body fat increases the risk of at least 12 cancers.
You may have heard about the link between red meat and colorectal cancer. There is strong evidence that eating large amounts of red meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer. The AICR recommends that Americans limit red meat to 3 portions per week or a total of 12-18 ounces per week. If reducing red meat consumption sounds like it will cramp your style, I suggest trying a meat substitute in one of your meals this week. I’ve recently been won over by “Impossible Burger” and their ground beef substitute. It browns correctly, is juicy and tender, and the taste is almost identical to real ground beef. With some taco seasoning, even my husband couldn’t tell the difference… and he’s a meat and potatoes kind of guy.
Incorporate Joyful Movement
The AICR recommends that Americans strive to be physically active for at least 150 minutes per week to reduce cancer risk. If exercising isn’t one of your habits, I ask that you consider your barriers. Does the idea of traditional exercise overwhelm you? Are you unsure of where to start? Maybe you are nervous to attempt to develop a new habit and fail.
No matter where you fall along the lines of readiness to exercise, remember to start small. I see a lot of people go from 0 to 100 and they tell me that going to intense, 1-hour classes 5 days per week is too much. Well yeah! It would be too much for me too. Start by doing something physically active for 15 minutes for 5 days per week. Make sure that whatever you are doing, is something that you somewhat enjoy. If not, it will be very hard to maintain this habit. Try taking a brisk walk while listening to some happy music or a podcast. Or, look up an exercise video on Youtube such as Zumba or aerobics. This video has modifications for both beginner and advanced exercisers.
It is important to note that no single food or lifestyle choice can fully prevent you from getting cancer, but certain foods and choices can certainly help reduce your risk. Take care friends!