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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

FEATURE | Posted Oct. 2, 2013

Reducing your cancer risk

Simple changes for a healthier life

Healthy diet © iStockphoto
Choosing a healthy diet and adding exercise to your routine can help reduce health risks.

Approximately 572,000 Americans die annually from cancer, and about one-third of the deaths are linked to poor diet, lack of physical activity and being overweight.

The more body fat you carry, the greater your risk of cancer, while the more physically active you are, the less likely you are to get cancer, according to Larry Kushi, co-leader of Population Sciences and Health Disparities at UC Davis and member of the National Cancer Institute-designated UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Kushi, who chaired the American Cancer Society committee on nutrition and physical activity guidelines for cancer prevention,  explains that excess weight results in the production and circulation of more estrogen and insulin, two hormones that can encourage cancer growth.

When it comes to diet and exercise, Kushi says you can lower your cancer risk if you follow these guidelines:

Choose plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains.  Up to 50 percent of preventable cancers are due to foods, which is why eating five to nine servings daily of fruits and vegetables can go a long way in lowering your cancer risk.

Eat more fiber. Why?  Because your body doesn’t digest fiber, and it moves cancer-causing compounds out of your system. The best source of fiber is found in plant foods, especially those that are unrefined. Eat a minimum of 30 to 40 grams of fiber each day; for instance, a medium apple, banana or orange has 3 grams of fiber, while one-half cup of cooked black beans has 8 grams.

Eat less red meat (beef, lamb and pork). The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting your diet to 18 ounces of red meat a week. Red meat has no fiber and often is high in fat, contributing to the production of hormones and increasing the risk of cancers, including colorectal, breast and prostate. Bake or broil meat, but if you fry or grill it, do so at lower temperatures for a longer time. Cooking at high temperatures can result in the formation of cancer-causing chemicals.

Diet and physical activity may not be the first things you consider when thinking about cancer, but they should be for good reasons:

  • They are within your control.
  • They make a difference in your exposure to risks.

Limit your daily alcohol consumption. For women, limit it to one drink a day and for men, keep it at two. Guidelines define a drink as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

Get physically active and control your weight. Physical activity will help you control your weight and keep hormone levels normal by quickly moving cancer-causing toxins out of your body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends engaging in moderate-intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes, five or more days per week or vigorous-intensity physical activity for at least 20 minutes, three or more days per week.   

Don’t rely on supplements.  It’s believed supplements don’t make a difference, and taking excess vitamins may actually increase your cancer risk. Sticking to natural vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals found in healthy foods is best in preventing cancer.

“Food and exercise are effective tools in fighting cancer,” Kushi says. “Choose your foods wisely, and keep moving to reduce the risks of cancer in your life.”