Christina Chiu, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, CNSC
Did you know that about one-third of cancers in this country are related to things people do (or don’t do) every day? Cancer has many causes, and some, like age and genetics, are not factors you can control. Others, such as weight, diet, and physical activity, are factors you can change.
Why does weight matter?
There is strong evidence that excess weight, especially around the mid-section of your body, is the most harmful and is linked with increased risk for certain cancers, including colon and postmenopausal breast cancer. One of the ways to figure out whether you are at a healthy weight is by knowing your body mass index (BMI). Although not it’s not a perfect tool in all cases, your BMI is a great starting point for figuring out whether you need to gain or lose weight, or keep your weight about the same. Think about asking your primary care doctor about your weight at your next annual physical.
What’s the right thing to eat?
Certain eating patterns are associated with lower cancer risk. The most important foods to focus on are whole, minimally-processed plant-based foods. This means it is important to eat a wide variety of colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes such as beans. These plant-based foods should be about two-thirds or more of your overall food intake. While it isn’t clear from research that any particular fruit or vegetable can decrease cancer risk, we do know from laboratory studies that plant nutrients, known as phytonutrients or phytochemicals, can influence cancer development and cell growth. Eating many different types of fruits and vegetables and other plant-based foods ensures that we get a wide range of nutrients that protect our health. Most plant-based foods contain fiber and are also low in calories. By choosing foods that are filling and satisfying without overeating calories can help us attain or achieve a healthy weight.
Is there anything I shouldn’t eat?
Alcohol drinking is clearly linked with several types of cancer, including head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal cancer. People who use both alcohol and tobacco have an even greater risk of developing cancer. In general, if you do drink, limit yourself to no more than one drink per day (for women) and no more than two drinks per day (for men). If you do not drink, there is no reason to start. In one study in the United Kingdom, every 10 grams of alcohol consumed per day (there’s 14 grams in a 12-ounce beer) was associated with a 12% increase in the risk of breast cancer.
According to the American Institute of Cancer Research, limiting red meat and avoiding processed meat reduces the risk of certain types of cancer, especially colorectal cancer. Red meat includes beef, lamb, and pork, while processed meats are meats that have been smoked, salted, or cured either by salt or other preservatives. Processed meats include deli meats, bacon, hot dogs, and lox. Try to keep your intake of red meat to less than 18 (cooked) ounces per week.
Dietary supplements, such as vitamins and extracts of herbs or foods, have not been shown to reduce cancer risk. In some people, taking high doses of certain vitamins can even have the opposite effect. In most cases, it is better to choose the actual whole food than the supplement (for example, including blueberries or orange slices at breakfast rather than taking a vitamin C supplement pill).
What do I do with all this information? Where do I start?
We all experience roadblocks when it comes to eating healthfully. You might now know what you should be eating, but you might not be so sure what eating healthfully looks like in your own life. You may have particular preferences about food, other health conditions that restrict what you can or cannot eat, or simply have no idea how to start. If that’s the case, it might be a good idea to ask your doctor for a referral to see a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist (RD or RDN). RDs are trained specifically to make science-backed, personalized food recommendations that take into consideration your personal preferences, health conditions, and other specific needs. If you are a cancer survivor, it might be a good idea to meet with an RD who is a board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO). In any case, here are a few questions for you to ask yourself when you evaluate yourself and what you are eating:
Am I eating fruits and vegetables every day?
Am I eating a colorful mix of different fruit and vegetables?
Are my meals at least half vegetables/fruits?
Am I hydrating regularly throughout the day?
How many calories am I getting from beverages?
Can I choose water or other non-diet and non-caloric beverages more often?
How many alcoholic beverages am I drinking each day/week?
Am I eating because I am hungry or am I eating out of habit, emotions, or other reasons?
How can I be more physically active throughout the day?
Christina Chiu, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, CNSC is a registered dietitian in the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where she has worked since 2008. A graduate of Cornell University and Boston University, Christina is a board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition and a board-certified nutrition support clinician. She applies her nutrition counseling expertise to help patients eat well throughout and after cancer treatment. She is particularly interested in helping patients realize that eating well for health can be realistic, achievable, and delicious all that the same time.