Did you know that research has shown that diet and exercise can help with cancer prevention whether you have never had cancer or if you are a cancer survivor? The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) regularly publishes cancer prevention guidelines based off of what the most up to date research shows us. About 1/3 of the most common cancers in the United States could be prevented by following the AICR’s diet and lifestyle recommendations. For some cancer types it’s not yet possible to determine the role for lifestyle changes and the impact for cancer prevention, but this only means that more research needs to be done. Lifestyle changes also benefit us for many other reasons other than cancer prevention so it’s good for almost everyone. Diet and exercise changes can make us feel better, promote better blood sugar control, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, promote an increase in lean body mass, and promote weight loss. This can help protect against additional serious illness like diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and high blood pressure.
What are the AICR Guidelines?
- Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight. You can use this BMI calculator and/or measure your waist circumference to determine if you may be at risk for being overweight or are overweight.
- Be physically active for at least 30 minutes per day. Limit sedentary behavior. Exercise decreases inflammation, can boost immune function, enhance your cells ability to fight off disease, and can help control hormone levels. Ask your oncologist if activity is okay for you if you are going though active treatment as there may be small periods of time that this is not recommended. You also want to make sure that your heart is healthy enough to tolerate exercise depending on your past medical history and treatments.
- Avoid sugary drinks and limit consumption of energy dense (high calorie) foods.
- Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes such as beans.
- Limit consumption of red meat (such as beef, pork, and lamb) and avoid processed meats (such as bacon, hotdogs, sausage, etc…).
- If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to one serving per day for women and two servings per day for men. Despite some evidence linking moderate alcohol consumption to decreasing the risk of heart disease, this protective effect does not apply to cancer.
- Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt/sodium. Enhance foods with seasonings or herbs.
- Do not rely on supplements to protect against cancer.
- New Mothers: breastfeed babies exclusively for up to 6 months and add other liquids and foods after. Note, however, that new mothers receiving chemotherapy should NOT breastfeed.
- Cancer survivors: After treatment, follow the recommendations for cancer prevention.
- Do not smoke or chew tobacco!
Where do I begin now that I have this information?
Fill up 2/3 of your plate with plant foods: One of the most important nutrition goals is eating more plant-based foods as most American’s are getting far below the recommended intake. This includes foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains (brown rice, wheat or sprouted breads, quinoa, etc.), and beans. These foods provide important protective phytocheimcals (or plant chemicals) that are protective compounds found naturally in plants to help with cancer prevention. To maximize the variety of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals you want to choose a variety of all colors thought out your day. Each color provides a different vitamin or mineral and are all rich in fiber.
*Try adding veggies or fruits to foods that you are already eating to enhance your meal. Add veggies to eggs, omelets, soups, burritos, pasta, rice, or make a stir fry. Add fruit to your yogurt, cereals, or salads. Eat fruits and veggies for a snack.
Only fill 1/3 of your plate with animal protein: If you eat fish, chicken, lean red meats, cheese, dairy, eggs, or other animal foods, make sure that you only take up 1/3 of your plate or less.
Take the New American Plate Challenge: The AICR created this challenge so that you can lose weight, feel better, and decrease cancer risk with a free 12-week interactive online program. This program will help you to learn to eat smart and move more in order to form lifelong healthy habits. You will also receive tips for strategies to meet the challenge, recipes, menus, grocery shopping lists, and other free resources. This program will help you stay motivated if you are thinking about making changes and provides you with a support group. You can learn from others, will be able to share questions, progress, frustrations, and successes with AICR dietitians and others taking the challenge on the private Facebook group. This will also allow you to plan your week, track your meals and activities on your own private online journal page. Research has shown that diet diaries/journals are the most successful weight loss tool as it prevents you from eating less healthy foods, as you don’t want to write them down. Here’s the link to sign up if you are interested.
Final Tips and Suggestions
Typically, most of my patients do best with adopting a few small changes at a time so that these changes become lifestyle changes, rather than something temporary. A small change over a long period of time really makes a big difference! If you want to start by increasing your activity, I usually suggest starting with a 5-10 minute walk if you aren’t used to exercising and then increase, as you are able to meet the recommended minimum of 30 minutes per day. Before you start exercise, ask your healthcare team as they can offer specific advice on physical activity that’s tailored to your situation. Follow their guidance.
If you aren’t used to eating fruits, vegetables, or other plant-based foods, I like to suggest people try one new item per day or per week. It can be a fun experience when you are at the store as you may find many new foods that you like and can include in your diet to add variety and health benefits. If you don’t like most fruits and vegetables, then you may wish to start with hiding them in casseroles or breads, etc… Get a buddy to try these new foods with you so that you can share the experience with someone else.
If you are a cancer survivor, have not had cancer, or have friends and family members who want to see what your specific cancer risks may be, this interactive tool might be helpful for you to determine more specifically where would be a good place for you to start making changes that might make the greatest impact for cancer prevention. Remember, any change can make a big difference!