April is Cancer Awareness Month

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As the second leading cause of death in the U.S. (heart disease is the number one killer), there’s a good chance that a close friend, relative, or you yourself, have battled cancer. The good news is that nearly half of all cancer deaths can be prevented with early detection and treatment. While some cancers are hereditary, the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that one-third of cancer deaths in the U.S. is due to dietary factors, another third to cigarette smoking.

In 1994, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund set out to investigate the cancer/diet connection. After a review of more than 4,500 research studies and contributions from more than 120 experts and peer-reviewers, the 660-page report was published in 1997. Its most important message was, “Cancer is a preventable disease.”

Consider these facts from the AICR:
• A healthy diet plus exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can cut your risk of cancer by 30 to 40 percent.
• A healthy diet plus not smoking could reduce your cancer risk by 60 to 70 percent.
• Simple changes, such as eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily could reduce your risk of cancer by more than 20 percent.

The media seems to be constantly reporting on new studies showing that “this” causes cancer, or “that” prevents it. But the key to preventing disease is not avoiding any one food or taking any one supplement. Cancer prevention requires an anti-cancer lifestyle. See the 9 steps below to cut your cancer risk.

9 Steps for Cancer Prevention

Eat a Plant-Based Diet.
Most of what you eat should come from the food groups in MyPlate which uses 3/4 of its food from vegetables, grains and fruits. This means lots of whole grain breads, cereals and pasta and brown rice; at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily; and more plant protein sources like beans, legumes and soy products.

Strive for Five.
It bears repeating: eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Choose the brightly colored green, orange, red, and yellow ones most. They are packed with antioxidant vitamins and minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals that help prevent cancer. In addition, fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat, which helps with weight control.

Choose lower fat foods.
A high fat diet, especially one heavy on high fat meats, is linked to many types of cancer. Cured and smoked meats are usually high in fat and contain nitrites, which cause stomach cancer. Low fat alternatives to meat are promising cancer-fighters. Beans and legumes are rich in phytochemicals. Isoflavones found in soy products may be beneficial.

Focus on Fiber.
Numerous studies show a link between high fiber intake and decreased risk of colon cancer. Although a recently publicized study failed to substantiate this connection, you shouldn’t base your diet on any one study or claim. Further research is needed, but a high fiber diet clearly has other benefits. Of course, if you’re eating a plant-based diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans, you’re going to be getting enough fiber anyway.

Limit Alcoholic Beverages.
Alcohol is associated with an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and larynx and possibly breast cancer. Heavy drinking causes liver cancer. Both the ACS and the AICR recommend avoiding alcohol or limiting yourself to one drink/day for women, two for men.

Don’t Forget Calcium & Folate.
Researchers think calcium and folate may each play a role in preventing colon cancer. Skim milk, low fat yogurt or cheese, calcium-fortified orange juice are good ways to get the 1,000 mg of calcium you need daily, but you’ll also find it in beans and greens. Get the recommended 400 mcg/day of folate from leafy green vegetables, orange juice, beans, and fortified breads and cereals.

Regular physical activity is associated with a decreased risk of some types of cancer. Exercise helps you lose or maintain your weight, which is important because obesity is related to cancer risk.

Maintain a Healthy Weight.
The AICR report recommends limiting weight gain during adult years to 11 pounds. The lifestyle changes described above will help you meet this goal.

Eliminate Tobacco Use
If you smoke, seek help to quit. Eliminate the use of all tobacco products. A third of cancer deaths are attributed to cigarette smoking.

By Hollis Bass, MEd, RD

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