Eating to Lower Your Cancer Risk

Thanks to Elisa Zied for such a great article about The American Institute for Cancer Research.  The piece highlights her interview with AICR’s nutritionist Alice Bender and their fitness trainer Laurant Amzallag, who both help break things down in depth for her readers on the subject of cancer and nutrition.

Eating to Lower Your Cancer Risk
By Elisa Zied, MS RD CDN, Registered Dietitian
on Friday, April 22, 2011

With age comes wisdom, right? Not always. A survey commissioned by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) found that the awareness that many cancers are preventable is low, and feelings of powerlessness in the face of cancer increase steadily as age increases.

“We can’t control our age, but we can control our cancer risk,” said AICR Nutritionist Alice Bender. “That’s what more and more research is showing, and that’s what people of all ages, particularly those over 50, who bear the highest cancer risk, need to understand. Evidence from the lab and the clinic suggests that these Americans can significantly lower their risk. ‘It’s never too late’ is good news for Americans worried about their cancer risk.  We should take that to heart and feel empowered by it.”

Bender, a registered dietitian, adds “Eating smart doesn’t mean becoming a vegetarian; it means learning how to shift the focus of meals off of meat and onto vegetables, whole grains, beans and fruit.”

Food Matters

I had an opportunity to interview Bender about how 50 somethings (and those beyond 50) can eat to lower their cancer risk. Here’s what she had to say:

EZ: Is there really anything we can do at age 50 and beyond to actually lower our cancer risk as we get older (eg follow a specific dietary pattern or eat certain foods)?
AB: The evidence is stronger than ever that we can lower our risk for cancer through small, everyday lifestyle choices – at any age. 4 out of 5 cancers are diagnosed after age 55 and many of these are strongly linked to diet, weight and physical activity, including postmenopausal breast and colon cancers.

The American Institute for Cancer Research’s (AICR) recommendations for diet and cancer prevention include:

  • Following a mostly plant-based diet including a variety of non-starchy vegetables and fruits;
  • Avoiding sugary drinks (regular sodas, fruit drinks) and limiting calorie dense foods (such as fried foods other foods with added fats and sugars);
  • Eating less than 18 oz. of red meat (beef, lamb, pork, goat) a week and avoiding processed meats (bacon, sausage, ham and other smoked and cured meats);
  • For those who drink alcohol, limiting to one standard drink (5 oz. wine, 12 oz. beer, 1 1/2 oz liquor) per day for women and two for men.

EZ: How would you encourage people to adopt a more plant-based diet?

AB: It’s as easy as taking a good hard look at your plate, and making some small adjustments:

  • Think of thirds. Let 2/3 or more be filled with vegetables, fruit, whole grains and beans and allow only 1/3 or less to hold lean animal foods – fish, poultry, beef and dairy. This meal model is AICR’s New American Plate. You don’t need to give up your favorites — just adjust the proportion and portion to get to a cancer protective diet;
  • Add colorful vegetables to your meals. If getting more color on your plate seems expensive or complicated, go for frozen, canned or pre-cut, pre-washed veggies. Frozen and canned are usually less expensive and the prepped fresh kind are easy to prepare;
  • Make seconds. If you cook for one or two, make enough to have as leftovers or to freeze for a second meal. A great tip is to try more one-pot meals such as stews, soups or salads that include meat or beans, vegetables and whole grain all in one. Not only is preparation simple, but there are fewer dishes to clean up afterwards;
  • Get a protein boost. Think of your meat as the size of a deck of cards and add beans or a few nuts to soups, salads and rice dishes;
  • Satisfy your sweet tooth. A bowl of colorful fruit such as strawberries and blueberries with a dollop of frozen yogurt or ice cream is a great way to end your meal.

EZ: What benefits, beyond a lower cancer risk, can people expect from following a more plant based diet?

AB: Many of these foods we’re talking about are high in fiber but low in calories. That means they can fill you up without weighing you down. We often gain weight with age, so loading your plate with lower calorie foods can help boost vitamins and minerals while helping you stay a healthy weight. The New American Plate is filled with nutrient rich foods that can also help you maintain healthy skin and hair and provide energy to keep you moving – at any age.

EZ: How can children motivate their 50+ year-old parents to feel empowered and eat in a way that can protect them against cancer?

AB: Children can send their parents or grandparents to the AICR’s It’s Never Too Late web site for tips, tools and recipes. They can also introduce them to healthier ways to prepare their favorite foods, and to new, more healthful foods People can sign up to receive our weekly Health-e-Recipe or print out some of our AICR Test Kitchen healthy recipes as well.

They can also let them know that research is showing that many cancers can be prevented at any age – and this may be very different from what those 50 and older have thought in the past about cancer.

Of course eating better and moving more is always easier to do when children, parents, and grandparents make time to do it together and motivate one another. Simple steps can include adding a vegetable to their plate at dinner, cutting down on sodas or other sugary drinks, spending less time sitting in front of the TV or computer screen, or substituting fish or poultry for red meat more often.

EZ: If someone already has had cancer, how would your recommendations change (if at all)?

AB: Studies are showing that these healthy diet/physical activity recommendations are important for survivors to not only lower their risk of recurrence, but to prevent other chronic disease. The good news is that there are more survivors than ever and they are living longer than ever – so healthy habits do make a big difference.

Many cancers common in women – post-menopausal breast, colon and endometrial – are strongly linked to diet, weight and physical activity. AICR estimates that 38% of breast cancers, 45% of colon cancers and 70% of endometrial cancers could be prevented in the United States if everyone would follow our guidelines to eat smart, move more and stay lean.

Fitness Matters

We know physical activity and exercise are other important puzzle piece to lower cancer risk and boost health. Here’s what AICR fitness representative Laurant Amzallag had to say about exercise for those 50 and older:

EZ: How much and what specific types of exercise can those 50 and older adopt to lower their cancer risk?

LA: As a trainer, when people ask me “how much should I do?”, I always respond “more than you are doing now.” The truth is, you start reaping benefits from exercise after only the first minute. Whether you are 20 or 100 years old, being active is your best protection against any kind of disease; cancer is no exception.
Look for something you enjoy and do it on a regular basis. People who enjoy a certain activity usually stick with it, and once you stick with it, you’ll begin to see results.

Whether you’re weight lifting, running, walking, or dancing, your body will reap the benefits. It’s not necessarily what you do. It’s if you do it that counts.
I usually recommend 30 minutes every day, but if you can do more, I say go for it!

EZ: Can regular physical activity protect against specific cancers?

LA: The specific cancers that regular physical activity has been shown to be protective against are some of the most common–colorectal cancer, post-menopausal breast cancers, and endometrial cancer; there also accumulating evidence it may help protect against some other cancers as well, but evidence is strongest for those 3 types of cancers.

AICR’s recommendation for physical activity is to aim for 30 minutes of moderate activity each and every day; when you feel like you can do more, do it.
Exercise improves your immune system, helps with DNA repair, and helps in hormone regulation. From my work with clients, I’ve found that when people adhere to a fitness regimen, they also tend to practice healthful habits like eating well—and if they cut calories, that can lowers their risk for obesity, a major risk factor for many forms of cancers.

EZ: How would your exercise/physical activity recommendations change for someone who is sedentary? or for someone who is already a regular exerciser?

LA: When I work with someone who has never or rarely exercised I try to help them find something they enjoy. There’s no point putting someone on a program if they then do it only because they feel they have to, and not because they enjoy it. They will never stick with it, and that means they won’t get results. Once I help them identify an activity that they once enjoyed or always wanted to try, I encourage them to start slow. Eventually, they will see results, and that motivates them to continue.

I encourage regular exercisers to up the ante from time to time. Shake it up a little. Try something new. The worst is when you feel you hit a plateau and you stop seeing results. Not only is that discouraging, but it makes exercise boring and monotonous.

EZ: How important is it for people to switch up their exercise routine often to stimulate different muscles because the body eventually adapts to doing the same routine over and over again? How often would you recommend that people switch up their routine?

LA: Do you like eating the same meal every night? Do you like to wear the same clothes every day? Probably not. Same thing with your exercise routine. Once the body adapts, results diminish. I like to switch a client’s routine every time I see him or her. I do that so they don’t get bored, and that their body doesn’t get used to the same workout.

As a general rule, if you don’t feel excited anymore about a workout that used to give you joy and make you smile, or if results don’t come as quickly as they used to, the time has come to switch it up. Switching things up every few weeks may be just what you need to keep your workouts fresh and your motivation strong.



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