Imagine having the power to wield an enormous impact on your risk of developing cancer in your future. In fact, you absolutely do have this power and this article is going to show you how to use it.
While there is no single food or habit that will surely cause cancer, there is also no single food or habit that will surely prevent it. To reduce your risk of being diagnosed with cancer you can influence any number of your day-to-day lifestyle practices, including nutrition. Learning strategies to reduce your risk of cancer with nutrition and nutrigenomic testing can help you to exert a big difference to your cancer risk.
According to the American Institute of Cancer Research, these are the top cancer prevention recommendations related to diet, nutrition, and physical activity:
● Be a healthy weight
● Be physically active
● Enjoy a better diet
● Limit “fast foods”
● Limit red and processed meat
● Cut down on sugary drinks
● Limit alcohol consumption
● Do not use supplements for cancer prevention
● Breastfeed your baby if you can
● Avoid smoking and other exposure to tobacco
● Don’t get excess sun exposure
In this article, you’re going to learn more about some of these diet and nutrition-related recommendations so that you can wield your power to reduce your risk of getting cancer. You’ll also get some goals, tips, and strategies to make them work for you. We will touch on how a nutrigenomics test can give you insight into your risk of cancer, and specific dietary strategies to lower that risk.
Fun fact: The healthy nutrition strategies in this article will not only reduce your risk of cancer, but they can also reduce your risk for developing heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and excess weight gain.
Note that when you hear phrases like “limit” and “cut down” they don’t necessarily suggest that you completely remove all traces of these foods from your diet. It simply prompts you to consider enjoying them less often and in smaller portions as part of an overall nutritious and well-balanced diet.
What is cancer and how can nutrition reduce your risk of getting it?
Behind heart disease (which is number one), cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States. Cancer happens when cells—from anywhere in the body—become abnormal and multiply uncontrollably. These cancer cells can cause damage by eventually growing into lumps or otherwise spreading throughout the body.
There are many different types of cancer and many different things can increase and decrease your risk of cancer. Cancer starts when there is an interaction between cells, the genetics inherited from parents, exposures to different environmental toxins, compounds, or viruses, and any number of other factors including nutrition and lifestyle behaviors.
The good news is that many cancers are highly preventable with a healthy lifestyle that includes an abundance of nutritious foods. In fact, according to Harvard Health, a healthy dietary pattern can reduce your cancer risk by 10-20 percent.
One of the main nutrition-related factors that can increase risk of cancer is excess weight. Studies show that excess weight can increase risks for cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx, larynx, esophagus), stomach, pancreas, gall bladder, liver, colorectum, breast (post-menopausal), ovary, endometrium, prostate, and kidney.
Enjoy these foods to improve your nutrition and reduce your cancer risk.
What exactly is a “better,” cancer-risk-reducing diet? It’s choosing more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes like beans and lentils. These foods help reduce cancer risk in many ways. For example, they are full of essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes also contain other health-promoting compounds like antioxidants. Plus, these foods can help protect against excess weight because they can help you feel fuller longer due to their fiber and water content.
Fun fact: Fiber is a health-promoting carbohydrate found in plant foods. It’s a unique type of carbohydrate because it’s one that our gut can’t break it down to digest. This has many health benefits for your digestive system. For one thing, fiber can help you feel fuller and help your digestive system keep things moving and promote regularity. Fiber also supports a healthy gut microbiome by feeding your friendly gut bacteria. Getting your fiber from foods is recommended over fiber supplements whenever possible.
Fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes also contain antioxidants and protein. These foods are known to help protect against many cancers, including colorectal cancer. Non-starchy fruits and vegetables also protect against several cancers, including cancers located in the mouth and throat.
A recommended goal is to eat at least five servings of non-starchy fruits and vegetables and between 25- 30 grams of fiber each day. You can do this by including non-starchy fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes in every meal and enjoying them as snacks. Examples of these foods are:
● a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, pineapple, broccoli, bell peppers, leafy greens, and blueberries
● whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat, and oats
● legumes include black beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), and lentils
Limit “fast foods” to reduce your cancer risk.
“Fast foods” are convenient foods that are often very processed. “Processed” means they’re heavily manufactured and don’t resemble their natural state. (Think of an potato harvested from the soil and how much it goes through to become a French Fry). Examples of fast foods include burgers, fried chicken, potato chips, cakes, pastries, candies, and candy bars.
Many fast foods are engineered to be very tasty (“highly palatable”) and can compel you to overeat them. Processed and convenience food manufacturers are focused on making a profit and are motivated to encourage you to overeat their processed foods-so Eater Beware! Fast foods are almost always high in fat, salt, and starches or sugars. They also usually have a long shelf-life so they can be stored for a long time (e.g., they’re not “fresh” foods that can wilt or go bad quickly). Eating too many fast and highly processed foods is linked to increased weight, insulin, blood sugar, and blood pressure. These health problems lead to obesity and an increased cancer risk.
The goal to reduce your cancer risk—and improving your overall health—is to limit how often and how much fast foods, processed foods, and convenience foods are eaten.
Limit red and processed meat to reduce your cancer risk.
Meat can be a good source of protein, iron, zinc, and Vitamin B12. However, eating too much red and processed meat is linked to many cancers, with the strongest link being to colorectal cancer.
Red meat includes beef, pork, veal, lamb, and goat. Processed meat is meat that has been salted, smoked, cured, or fermented. These processes are done to enhance the flavor of the meat and also to preserve it and increase its shelf life. Examples of processed meats are hot dogs, bacon, salami, sausages, and deli meats like ham.
Red and processed meats can contribute to cancer risk because they may contain or create cancer-causing substances when they’re processed and cooked (charred). They can also contribute to excess weight from having a large amount of saturated fat, which is a risk factor for many cancers.
The goal is to enjoy red meat up to three portions per week and have even less processed meat. When you do eat red meat, you can choose leaner cuts of it, or even substitute it from time to time with other higher-protein foods like poultry, fish, legumes, eggs, nuts, or dairy.
Cut down on sugary drinks to reduce your cancer risk
Sugar-sweetened drinks include sodas and energy drinks, as well as sugar added to other beverages like tea and coffee. There is strong evidence that high intakes of sugary drinks contributes to excess weight and increases risk of cancer.
Fun fact: Drinking coffee may protect against liver, endometrial, mouth, and throat cancers. Drinking tea (but not maté tea) is linked to a reduced risk of bladder cancer. Consider enjoying them with a bit less sugar.
Pro tip: Did you know most coffee shops will happily make their signature drinks with half of the sugar/syrup? Simply ask for your drink to be “half sweet” and see if they can accommodate your focus toward better health and lower cancer risk.
Try to reduce your intake of sugary drinks by having them less often and in smaller amounts. When it comes to benefits of substituting sugar-sweetened drinks with low-calorie artificially-sweetened drinks, the science is not clear. That’s why the recommendation is to enjoy water and unsweetened drinks.
Decrease or elimination alcohol consumption to reduce your cancer risk.
Alcohol has been classified as a carcinogen (meaning it is cancer causing") by the International Agency of Research on Cancer. More than 5% of new cancer cases are associated with alcohol consumption. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is one of the organs most easily affected by alcohol, and evidence shows links between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancers of the esophagus, colorectum, and liver. it may also be associated with a higher risk of stomach and pancreatic cancer. At one time, it was believed that frequent alcohol consumption was healthful, however this recommendations has been more thoroughly scrutinized in recent years by scientific research.
Bottom line: If you are worried about your risk of developing cancer, elimination alcohol is an excellent way to reduce your risks. Second best is to decrease your consumption away from a daily drink to only on the weekends or every other day. Work toward lowering your weekly intake, and develop creative ways to enjoy a "drink with friends" such as having kombucha, a mocktail, or a non-alcoholic win or beer.
Consider taking a nutrigenomics test to get personalized insights.
As mentioned above, genetics can play a role in cancer development. Currently available nutrigenomic testing offers some practical insights into changes in the DNA and how it might affect the possibility of cancer in the future. For example, "Methylation" is a biochemical process that occurs in all the cells of the body, and is responsible for providing a molecule (a methyl group) to assist in the protection and repair of DNA and the creation of certain hormones. Many of us have changes in our genes that slow this methylation process down, potentially putting us at higher risks of certain diseases. Luckily, there are ways of improving this process through ensuring your food had certain nutrients-vitamins and minerals- that keep the cycle humming. For example, for a genetically-induced slow methylation cycle, you want to be sure you're eating foods that provide adequate dietary folate, vitamin B12, choline, and other B vitamins.
This genetic knowledge can apply to improving a number of other biological pathways as well, such as inflammation, detoxification and oxidative stress, where making the dietary changes can lead to a healthier future. Having knowledge on how your unique biology works, and the strategies to overcome these genetic liabilities is a powerful intervention to decrease your risks of diseases, including cancer.
Final thoughts on nutrition and cancer prevention
Cancer is no small health risk and the empowering truth is that you absolutely have the ability to influence your health and future with nutrition. The foods (and drinks) you consume contribute to your healthy lifestyle to reduce your risk of cancer. And the great news is that these strategies can also reduce your risk of other chronic diseases at the same time.
By choosing more fruits, vegetable, whole grains, and legumes, and choosing fewer fast foods, red and processed meats, and sugary drinks, you can exert a big impact on your health. You don’t need to overhaul everything right away because small, sustainable changes to your day-to-day life can lead the way to improved wellness.
Exploring the details of your unique genetic code helps you gain insights that can personalize your approach to reducing your risks of cancer, as well and many other chronic diseases, and help ensure a healthy long life.
Need help choosing or implementing more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes into your diet? Want to explore the option of nutrigenomic testing? I’m here for you. As a registered dietitian and expert in functional nutrition and nutrigenomics testing, I’d love to help.
Book a 15-20 minute introductory appointment with me today to see if my nutrition service can help you.
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