Fight cancer with food and healthy habits – Houston Chronicle


The C word. The one that kind of hangs there, in the air, after someone says it. The one that is among the leading causes of death worldwide. The one with entire months dedicated to fighting it. The one that ultimately, we can’t seem to fix. Cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and I am shedding some light on ways we may be able to control our risk in getting cancer.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and a leading cause of cancer deaths in women, second only to lung cancer. While no diet or lifestyle pattern can guarantee full protection against any disease; one third of cancer deaths that occur in the U.S. can be attributed to diet and physical activity habits, including overweight and obesity, which is equivalent to the amount of cancer deaths caused by exposure to tobacco, according to the American Cancer Society. Of course, genetics influence your risk of cancer, too, but most of the variation in cancer risk is due to factors that are not inherited. What does that mean? It means you have some control in your risk; you have power to fight back.

The American Cancer Society has provided nutrition and physical activity guidelines to help reduce your risk of cancer. These recommendations are based on the current scientific evidence on diet and physical activity related to cancer risk.

But first, let me try to explain why there are so many conflicting reports regarding nutrition and cancer. For nutrition specifically, no evidence is definitive due to the difficult nature of studying diet and chronic diseases in humans. Ideally, scientists like randomly controlled trials, or RCTS, where there is one single variable that can be controled, and study its effect or outcome.

However, there are many complex interrelationships between specific micronutrients with the body, with other nutrients, and with current body weight, physical activity levels and age. There are simply too many variables. While RCTs are sometimes helpful, typically researchers turn to observational studies in combination with trying to gain a better understanding of the biology of cancer.

Observational studies also have their flaws. Since we want to know potential effects of nutrition throughout the lifespan, groups of people need to be followed over years, which is obviously time-consuming, and people are not always reliable.

So, these recommendations are a summary of the existing scientific information about weight control, physical activity and nutrition in relation to cancer.

Achieve and maintain a healthy weight throughout life. Well, that’s easier said than done. But it has been estimated that overweight and obesity contribute to 14 to 20% of all cancer-related mortality, and being overweight/obese has been clearly associated with an increased risk in developing cancer.

This is thought to affect your risk through a variety of mechanisms, including effects on immune function and inflammation, effects on levels of specific hormones that regulate cell growth, and effects on specific proteins that make hormones more or less available to tissues within your body.

What is a healthy weight? That depends on your height and muscle mass, but we typically look to BMI to measure a healthy weight and it should be somewhere between 18.5 to 25 kg/m2. How do we achieve a healthy body weight? Balance! We do this by balancing our energy intake (food and beverage intake) with energy output (physical activity/ movement).

Adopt a physically active lifestyle. This does not mean you need to quit your day job and become a fitness professional (although that’s what I did). It just means you need to get moving!

Adults should engage in 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. That’s just over two episodes of “This Is Us,” “Succession” or whatever you’re binge-watching this week. Surely, you can fit that in.

Children and adolescents should engage in at least one hour of moderate or vigorous activity each day and everyone should limit sedentary behavior like sitting, watching TV, or other screen-time activities.

Physical activity acts in a variety of ways to reduce your cancer risk both directly and indirectly including; regulating sex hormones and insulin; boosting your immune system and of course helping you maintain a healthy body weight.

Consume a healthy diet with an emphasis on plant foods. Again, balance is key. I am not saying you need to become a vegetarian or vegan, I am saying you need to eat your greens! (If you already are vegan or vegetarian, then it’s likely you are already getting all your veggies in.) But the guidelines go on to say that we should read food labels and become more aware of our portion sizes. We should eat smaller portions of high-calorie foods and limit the following; foods consumed outside the home, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined carbohydrates and consumption of processed meat. And we should choose the following more often: whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains and eat at least 2.5 cups of veggies and fruit every day.

Our diet is highly complex and evidence that fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with a reduction in cancer risk is clear. It has also led to attempts to isolate specific nutrients from fruits and vegetables and study their effects as supplements, like Vitamin C for example. Unfortunately, many of these studies have proven to be inconclusive. What does this mean? It means it is likely that the food we eat and its nutrients have an additive or synergistic effect on our health and our bodies. Meaning, you can’t just take a super antioxidant pill while making poor food choices and expect to get the same outcome as someone who has a healthy diet. To help you reach the recommended fruit and veggie intake, Americans are encouraged to fill half of their plate at every meal with a fruit or vegetable.

If you drink alcoholic beverages, limit consumption. Yes, the American Heart Association has found some beneficial cardiovascular effects in drinking wine. However, there is no compelling evidence to suggest if you do not consume alcoholic beverages that you need to start. In fact, drinking in excess is associated with a 1.4-fold higher risk of getting colorectal cancer.

Lastly, The American Cancer society has one recommendation at the community level. That public, private and community organizations should work collaboratively at national, state and local levels to implement policy and environmental changes that increase access to affordable, healthy foods and provide safe, enjoyable and accessible environments for physical activity. While many Americans would like to adopt a healthy lifestyle, there is no doubt that social, economic and cultural factors strongly influence individual choices about diet and lifestyle changes.

Our current lifestyle trends include increased portion sizes, increased consumption of high-calorie convenience foods, restaurant meals, longer work days and increased amount of time spent sitting. Reversing these trends will require big action with multiple strategies — but it can start with you.

Making a choice to move more, to take the stairs, to make dinner at home, to switch to drinking water are all individual choices that can reduce your risk of cancer. Haven’t we all heard the saying “Be the change you wish to see in the world”? It can start with you and together we can knock the C-word out one step at a time.