February was Cancer Prevention Month and March is National Nutrition Month. As a dietitian who works part-time with oncology patients, I have learned a lot over the past year about nutrition and cancer, to include greater awareness of the abundance of confusing information circling the internet about what we should or shouldn’t do with our diets and behaviors to prevent or deal with a cancer diagnosis. We know…cancer is a scary word. Something we might want to tiptoe around. But chances are, many of us will be affected by cancer in our lifetime, and about 40% of cancer cases could be prevented by limiting exposure to cancer risk factors. 1 While there is still much to learn, there are a number of choices we can make every day that will reduce our cancer risk. As you might imagine, a handful are directly related to nutrition!
- Be a healthy weight
- Be physically active
- Eat a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans
- Limit consumption of “fast foods” and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars
- Limit consumption of red and processed meat
- Limit consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Do not use supplements for cancer prevention
- For mothers: breastfeed your baby, if you can
- After a cancer diagnosis: follow these recommendations, if you can
- Not smoking and avoiding other exposure to tobacco and excess sun are also important in reducing cancer risk.
Where to start? Being a healthy weight starts with your eating and exercise patterns!
Physical activity doesn’t have to be the gym. You can take a walk or even do yard work! Find something you enjoy or can stick to… and create a habit from it. For cancer prevention and weight control work up to 45-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day. Don’t let these numbers overwhelm you. We all have to start somewhere!
Eating well begins with a diet rich in cancer-protective foods, which exist primarily in plants. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans provide immune-boosting and disease-fighting compounds that protect our body from damage that can eventually lead to cancer. These foods also help maintain a healthy weight since they are lower in calories than other foods.
Think when you drink. Sugar-sweetened drinks are directly related to problems with weight control, which is linked to higher risk of 12 different cancers2. Alcohol in any amount or form is a clear carcinogen. Instead of thinking all-or-nothing, think of replacements for sugar-sweetened and alcohol beverages where you can. Consider water, sparkling water, unsweetened tea, kombucha, kefir, low fat milk, and small portions of juices instead.
Lastly, choose food over supplements! While multivitamins or specific supplements do have an important role in sub-sections of the population who stand to benefit from them (e.g. women of childbearing age, the elderly), aim to meet your nutritional needs through diet alone.