One third of cancers are from what we eat & do

Diet and Physical Activity: What’s the cancer connection?

By The American Cancer Society

How much do daily habits like diet and exercise affect our risk for cancer? Much more than you might think. Increasingly, researchers agree that poor diets and sedentary lifestyles are among the most important contributors to cancer risk.

Fortunately, these are things we can control.

Control Your Weight

Except for quitting smoking, the best way to cut your risk of cancer is to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, to be physically active on a regular basis, and to make healthy food choices. The evidence for this is strong: Each year, about 550,000 Americans die of cancer; fully one-third of these deaths are linked to poor diet, physical inactivity, and carrying excess weight.

What’s a Healthy Weight?

One of the best ways to find out if you are at a healthy weight is to check your Body Mass Index (BMI), a score based on the relationship between your height and weight. Use our easy online BMI calculator to find out your score. To reduce your cancer risk, try to keep your BMI less than 25.

If you are trying to control your weight, a good first step is to watch portion sizes, especially of foods high in calories, fat, and added sugars. Try writing down what and how much you eat and drink for a week and see where you can cut down on portion sizes, cut back on some not-so-healthy foods and drinks, or both!

Be More Active

Watching how much you eat will help you control your weight. The other key is to increase the amount of physical activity you do. Being active helps reduce your cancer risk by helping with weight control, and can also reduce your risk by influencing hormone levels and your immune system.

More good news – physical activity helps you reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes, too! So grab your tennis shoes and head out the door!

The latest recommendations for adults call for at least 30 minutes of intentional moderate to vigorous activity a day — this is over and above usual daily activities like using the stairs instead of the elevator at your office or doing housework — on 5 or more days per week. Even better, shoot for 45 to 60 minutes. For kids, the recommendation is 60 minutes or more a day.

Activities considered moderate are those that make you breathe as hard as you would during a brisk walk. This includes things like walking, biking, even housework and gardening. Vigorous activities generally engage large muscle groups and cause a noticeable increase in heart rate, breathing depth and frequency, and sweating.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Eating well is also important to improve your health and reduce your cancer risk. Take a good hard look at what you typically eat each day and incorporate the following suggestions to build a healthy diet plan for yourself:

Vegetables: You need to eat at least 5 servings of vegetables (including legumes) and fruits each day, especially those with the most color (a sign of high nutrient content). These foods are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and many other substances that work together to lower risk of several cancers, including cancers of the lung, mouth, esophagus, stomach, and colon. Not only that, if prepared properly, vegetables and fruits are usually low in calories, so eating them in place of higher-calorie foods can help you control your weight.

Whole Grains: Aim for at least 3 servings of whole grains each day. There are easy ways to add whole grains to your diet — eat oatmeal at breakfast, choose whole-wheat bread or wraps for your lunchtime sandwich, whip up brown rice at dinner instead of white.

(*Ruth: Grains in their whole form are best for our bodies, like brown rice, steel-cut oatmeal, millet, barley, and quinoa.)

Processed Red Meats: Cutting back on processed meats like hot dogs, bologna, and luncheon meat, and red meats like beef, pork and lamb may help reduce the risk of colon and prostate cancers. These foods are also high in saturated fat, so eating less of them and eating them less often will also help you lower your risk of heart disease.

Cancer Risk Reduction in Our Communities

Adopting a healthier lifestyle is easier for people who live, work, play, or go to school in an environment that supports healthy behaviors. Working together, communities can create the type of environment where healthy choices become easy choices.

We all can contribute to those changes: Let’s ask for healthier food choices at our workplaces and schools. For every junk food item in the vending machine, ask for a healthy alternative. Support restaurants that support your desire to eat well by offering options such as smaller portion sizes, lower-calorie items, and whole-grain products. And let’s help make our communities safer and more appealing places to walk, bike, and be active.

The Bottom Line

One third of all cancer deaths are related to diet and activity factors. Let’s challenge ourselves to lose some extra pounds, to increase our physical activity, to make healthy food choices, and to look for ways to make our environments healthier places to live, work, and play.

Last Medical Review: 10/22/2009
Last Revised: 10/22/2009

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