October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, encouraging us all to make a plan for early detection and to encourage others to also. Doing things like staying consistent with self breast exams and getting mammograms regularly is key in the fight against breast cancer. Lifestyle habits regarding eating and exercise are also important in regards to fighting cancers of all kinds.
5-10% of breast cancers can be linked to gene mutations (abnormal changes) inherited from one's mother or father. But, about 85% of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer and are believed to occur as a result of the aging process and our everyday habits. Over the last 30 years, the false belief that cancer is just something that strikes the unlucky and that nothing can be done about it, has changed. Rigorous scientific research has revealed that the lifestyle choices we make everyday in regards to what we eat and how much we move can impact our risk of not only breast cancer but many other cancers as well.
The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) estimates that 340,000 cases of cancer a year could be prevented by eating healthier, moving more, and achieving a healthy weight. So, for many of us, we are in the driver’s seat when it comes to decreasing our risk of developing cancer. There are no guarantees or magic bullets but research now shows that through healthier lifestyle choices we can make cancer less likely to happen.
The AICR brought together an expert panel to carefully review thousands of international scientific studies and ultimately narrow these findings down to 10 Recommendations for Cancer Prevention. Want to know how to decrease your risk for developing cancers of all kinds, here are 10 habits to focus on today!
- Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight. Weight loss is not just about a number on a scale or being “skinny”. Getting to and maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer. Where we store extra weight has also been found to be important and appears to have an impact on cancer risk. Specifically, excess weight around the middle (aka that spare tire or muffin top) is particularly harmful and is strongly linked to colon cancer and probably to cancers of the pancreas and endometrium (lining of the uterus), as well as breast cancer (in postmenopausal women).
- Be physically active for at least 30-60 minutes every day. Exercise and moving our bodies is so much more than just a way to burn calories. Moving our bodies has been shown to be beneficial in keeping levels of certain cancer risk increasing hormones at a healthy range. Exercise also helps to boost our body’s immunity. Any activity counts and something is better than nothing. Just move!
- Avoid sugary drinks. Limit consumption of calorie laden foods. Gradually work to replace processed foods, devoid of nutrients and high in sugar, fat, and calories and instead focus on getting more nutrient-dense foods (more about this in #4). Sugary drinks specifically are full of calories, but don’t fill us up and cause our blood sugars and insulin levels to sky rocket. I like to refer to them as sugar bombs. Cutting back or avoiding sugary drinks (including fruit juice) for a myriad of reasons is your best choice and can have a huge impact on your weight and health.
- Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes such as beans. (Sound familiar?) Gradually work in more nutrient-dense foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. A good, practical goal is to aim to fill 2/3 of your plate with these nutrient-dense choices. There are a multitude of supportive reasons for including more of these power-house foods and leaning towards a plant-based diet for cancer prevention (in addition to protection from many other chronic diseases). They are high in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals – naturally occurring plant compounds known to protect our bodies from damage that can lead to cancer. They are also high in fiber, which is beneficial, and because they are relatively low in calories they can also help in efforts to manage weight.
- Limit consumption of red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) and avoid processed meats. Processed meats refer to meats that have been preserved by being smoked, cured, or salted, including bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ham, and salami. Through these processes carcinogens are believed to form that can damage cells and lead to cancer. The connections between intake of both red meats and processed meats is strong, especially in the incidence of colorectal cancer. Cutting back or replacing these types of meat with leaner choices like chicken, turkey, or fish or plant based proteins, such as beans and nuts, is a better bet.
- Drink in moderation. For cancer prevention, the AICR recommends if we drink at all to limit alcoholic drinks to 2 for men and 1 for women a day. There is strong evidence that alcohol intake increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus and breast, as well as colorectal cancer in men and appears to increase women’s risk for both colorectal and liver cancer. We all know that alcohol has been shown to have a protective effect in regards to heart disease, but anything over moderate amounts and it is no longer beneficial. Moderation is key.
- Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt (sodium). In addition to being related to high blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease, scientific evidence also supports a connection between high salt intake and stomach cancer. The recommended amount of sodium per day is 2,400 mg and most of us get far more than that. Processed foods found in boxes, bags, and cans contribute a lot of sodium and so do meals eaten out, both fast food and otherwise. Making an effort to include fresh foods as much as possible and eat at home more often is a great strategy to reduce the salt in your diet.
- Don’t use supplements to protect against cancer. When it comes to supplements many of us believe that if a little is good then a lot must be really good. But, the AICR expert panel supports the recommendation that nutrients should come from food not supplements. One possible theory is that an excess of nutrients, which can occur easily through supplement use vs. food intake, may cause an upset in the balance of nutrients in the body. Certain populations need specific supplementation, for instance women of child bearing age should take a folic acid supplement, but for the most part we should focus on getting the nutrients we need through the food we eat and not mega doses of supplements.
- It is best for mothers to breastfeed exclusively for up to 6 months and then add other liquids and foods. The evidence that breastfeeding protects mothers from breast cancer is well supported. Breastfeeding has been shown to lower the levels of some cancer-related hormones in the mother’s body, thereby reducing the risk of cancer. There is also evidence that children who have been breastfed have lower rates of overweight and obesity which can increase cancer risk later in life.
- After treatment, cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention. There is mounting evidence that physical activity and eating well may help to prevent cancer recurrence, especially in breast cancer survivors. In addition to helping reduce risk of recurrence, moving more and eating high-quality nutritious foods has the added benefit of guarding against other chronic disease such as heart disease and diabetes.
Our lifestyle habits, in regards to eating and exercise, matter and for so much bigger and more important reasons than just the number on the scale. For a large percentage of us, we can be in charge when it comes to cancer prevention by making just a few small changes in our everyday habits. Which one of these could you start with? Pick one and make one small change to better your health and prevent your risk of cancer.