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Reduce your cancer risk with diet and lifestyle changes

Many people mistakenly believe that cancer is largely a hereditary disease, as if fate and the family gene pool alone dictate your chances of getting sick. The truth, though, is that only about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers develop from gene mutations passed down from one generation to the next, according to the American Cancer Society. That means that for the other 90 to 95 percent of cancers, the lifestyle choices you make, the foods you eat and the amount of exercise you incorporate into your daily life can have an important impact on your overall risk. That’s why prevention and awareness have become vital tools in the fight to end cancer, and they start with knowing how to nourish your body and how to develop healthy habits with lasting benefits.

Diet: Eating your way to good health

A healthy diet is essential to cancer prevention, especially a regimen focused on making nutritious choices, favoring organic foods, eating in moderation and preparing foods properly. It’s all about balance, moderation and variety. By eating the right foods, consuming a wide spectrum of nutrients and not consuming more than your body requires, you can help reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases.

Because everyone is unique, deciding how to improve your diet to prevent disease or, even to strengthen your body to fight cancer, is an individual experience.  “At our hospitals, we have dietitians who work with patients to make diet changes that are individualized for them,” says Carolyn Lammersfeld, Vice President of Integrative Medicine at our hospital near Chicago.

Healthy eating starts with a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and fiber, one that also includes as little saturated and trans fat, salt and sugar as possible.  It also means limiting processed foods that contain chemicals and additives that may contribute to the risk of developing cancer. Such foods may come packed with hidden fat, calories, sugar and salt. When you are rushed or between meals, microwaving processed foods or grabbing unhealthy snacks on the run may become convenient options. But Lammersfeld stresses that processed foods should be limited whenever possible.

“Diets rich in red and processed meats are associated with an increased cancer risk,” says Lammersfeld.  She recommends eating a plant-based diet of fruits, vegetables, beans and other whole foods. Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants and other phytochemicals, which may help protect cells from damage that could contribute to cancer development. Plant sources also have many important food components that protect the body’s DNA from mutating. When possible, choose organic foods and hormone-free meat and dairy products. Eating organic foods grown in safe soil, with no modifications, pesticides, fertilizers or bioengineered processes, reduces your consumption of artificial, often-harmful ingredients. Chemical pesticides, after all, are designed to kill insects and weeds, so many environmental experts question how they can be good for humans.

Maintaining a healthy body weight can also reduce your risk of developing cancer. Excess weight causes the body to produce and circulate more estrogen and insulin, hormones that can stimulate cancer growth, according to the American Cancer Society. This process is often triggered by excess fat cells in the body, so maintaining a healthy weight throughout your lifetime is just as important as achieving it. Eating nutrient-rich foods, in moderation, is key.

“Food preparation is a big issue,” says Lammersfeld. Frying, grilling or barbecuing meat at high temperatures to the point of burning or charring, for example, can trigger the formation of carcinogenic compounds known as heterocyclic amines, or HCAs. ”However, the same carcinogens are not produced with plant-based foods,” says Lammersfeld, “so grilling vegetables and tofu are safe alternatives. If you do choose to grill meat, you can marinade it prior to cooking to reduce the production of those compounds.”

Sometimes, all it takes to drive home the benefits that come with a healthy diet is to have someone prepare a nutritious meal for you. “The food that is served in our facilities is a reinforced message,” Lammersfeld says. “Our patients can see healthy food, taste it and make the connection that eating healthy can be tasty and good. We also provide healthy recipes to make it as easy as possible to do this at home.”

Lifestyle: Healthy living as a way of life

The lifestyle you develop and the daily habits you practice may also have a significant impact on your cancer risk. There are some simple steps you can take today to help keep illness at bay, starting with staying physically active every day. Regular exercise can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, which strengthens your body’s immunities and defenses. That’s important not only to disease prevention, but also for those who have already been diagnosed with cancer and need to stay strong for the fight ahead. If you're not used to being active every day, consider taking small steps that may help you start an exercise plan, and if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, make sure you consult your doctor before beginning any exercise regimen.

It helps to have a support team or instructor. “Each patient at our hospital has a care team that can help them achieve and maintain a healthy weight,” Lammersfeld says. “In addition to seeing a dietitian and naturopathic oncology provider, a patient can meet with the Mind-Body team to help with motivation for losing weight. The Rehabilitation department helps keep patients active and healthy.” When patients are away from the hospital, taking advantage of all the resources available will help them stay physically active. “In this day and age, using technology can also be a big help with motivation and successfully reaching your fitness goals,” Lammersfeld says. “There are many apps and wearable devices to help you monitor your diet and activity and to provide constant feedback and monitoring. It can also help you realize when you get off track.”

Avoiding bisphenol-A, commonly called BPA, is another way to protect your body from carcinogens. BPA is a potentially toxic estrogen-mimicking compound used in plastics and linked in some studies to cancer and other health issues. Many countries have banned baby bottles that contain BPA because of the potential risks, but the chemical can still be found in many everyday products. To avoid BPA, drink tap water instead of bottled water and use BPA-free stainless steel containers for refillable beverages. For storing leftovers, use glass instead of plastic containers, and never microwave food in a plastic container or with a plastic covering. Many canned foods also may contain BPA, so it is better to choose alternatives like carton-packed soups or cans with BPA-free lining.

BPA isn’t the only potentially harmful compound you’ll want to avoid in protecting your health. Many household cleaning products are loaded with chemicals, and manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients on the label. Read labels carefully and buy only environmentally conscious products that list their ingredients. And of course, avoiding cigarettes and other tobacco products is important in cancer prevention.

Finally, one of the biggest risks to your health is something you encounter every day, something that deserves to be treated with great caution: the sun. Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, but it is also one of the most preventable. To protect yourself from sun exposure, wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. Apply sunscreen generously, and make sure you reapply every two hours or more often if you're swimming or perspiring. However, sunscreen doesn’t provide complete protection from UV rays, so also wear protective clothing and avoid the sun in the middle of the day whenever possible. Also, check your skin regularly and report any changes to your doctor.

Many risk factors have been linked to cancer, and it is impossible to avoid all exposure to potential carcinogens. But lots of opportunities are available in your life and in your environment to help you reduce your risk. Learning what influences your health gives you the power to know what to avoid and how to work toward a healthier lifestyle.

Learn more about what cancer is and how it’s treated.