When it comes to preventing cancer, we all know the basics: don’t smoke; use sunscreen; and have routine preventive tests such as mammograms, PSAs and colonoscopies. These things are just part of prevention, though. According to the American Cancer Society, modifying what people eat and how much they exercise may prevent 30-40 percent of all cancers.
Making healthy food choices is easier than you might think. Studies conducted since the early 1980s suggest that people who consistently consume a low-fat, high-fiber diet -- including a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans -- are half as likely to develop cancer as people whose diets lack these foods. Strive to fill 2/3 of the plate with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.
Plant-based diets have been shown to protect against cancer because they contain vitamins and minerals, which help keep the body healthy and strengthen the immune system. Plant-based foods also are a good source of phytochemicals, which are compounds that help to protect cells in the body from damage that can lead to cancer.
To optimize fiber intake and reduce the risk of developing cancer, eat foods including whole-grain breads and pastas, oatmeal, vegetables and fruits. That’s one reason vegetarians, whose diets easily meet these requirements, are at the lowest risk for cancer.
Consuming a diet limited in red meat (such as beef, pork and lamb) and processed meats also is associated with a lower incidence of developing cancer. The link between colon cancer and red meat is strong. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends to eat no more than 18 ounces -- cooked weight -- per week of red meat and to avoid processed meats such as ham, bacon, salami, hot dogs and sausages. When meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by adding preservatives, cancer-causing substances or carcinogens can form. These substances can damage cells in the body, leading to the development of cancer.
A helping of regular physical activity also has been shown to help prevent cancer. Exercising for at least 30 minutes every day can help keep hormone levels healthy, which is important because high levels of some hormones can increase the risk for developing some cancers. If you are new to regularly exercising, start by working toward a goal of 30 minutes of activity per day. Any type or amount of activity is better than nothing. Also strive to add extra activity to your daily routine by parking at the far end of the parking lot or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
Finally, if consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to two for men and one for women, per day. Many research studies have established the strong relationship between alcohol use and cancer, and the risks caused by alcohol vary depending on the kind of cancer. Individuals who drink heavily and smoke cigarettes or use other kinds of tobacco are at an even higher risk for developing cancer.
Remember that what you eat and drink does matter, as it can increase or decrease your risk of developing cancer.
Whitney Roberts is a registered dietitian who works with patients of the Blount Memorial Cancer Center. Roberts also is on the staff of the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center, which provides surgical and non-surgical options for weight loss, as well as diabetes management.