Recent research has proven that the daily choices we make can increase the odds of living a long healthy life, even if our family history suggests an increased cancer risk. In one study, more than 44,000 pairs of twins were studied to measure the effects of genetics versus lifestyle factors on cancer risk. For the 11 common cancers studied, lifestyle consistently was a stronger risk for cancer than genes, contributing between 65 and nearly 100 percent of overall risk.
So, if we know that healthy choices can impact cancer risk, what choices should we make?
- Eat five to 10 servings daily of fruits and vegetables. This may be the most important change you can make. Eat a rainbow of colors each day. The colors in food come from protective phytochemicals like bioflavonoids and carotenoids. So eat something yellow, red, green, orange, purple or blue daily. Another way to think of this is to be sure that half your plate at each meal consists of salads, vegetables and fruits.
- Reduce consumption of refined grains and sugars. Cancer cells thrive in a high sugar, high insulin environment. Studies show such diets increase risk of almost every type of cancer. Sugar and refined carbohydrates increase insulin levels in the blood which can also increase cancer risk. So eat less simple carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, sugars and candies and eat moderate amounts of complex carbs like beans, whole grains and 100-percent whole grain breads and pasta.
- Eat more wild-caught fish and beneficial fats. The omega 3 fats found in fish reduce cancer risk. Pacific salmon is an excellent choice because it is high in desirable fats and low in heavy metals and pesticides. Avoid or minimize farmed salmon which tends to be higher in antibiotics, hormones and dioxins. Other cold-water fish like halibut, mackerel and sardines are also desirable. Other beneficial fats include olive oil, avocado oil and oils from nuts and flax seeds.
- Reduce consumption of red meat and animal fats. Fats from red meats and cheeses increase growth of tumors. Charred meats add another risk factor called heterocyclic amines. Processed meats like hot dogs contain nitrates and nitrites which are especially dangerous for children. Children consuming 12 hot dogs a month have almost 10 times the risk of leukemia compared to children who do not eat hot dogs. When you want red meat, choose grass-fed varieties such as buffalo or beefalo or wild game. Select free-range hormone-free poultry.
- Avoid high-calorie, highly processed junk foods. Empty calories contribute to obesity, a known risk factor for cancer. Junk food also is generally loaded with artificial colorings, flavorings and hydrogenated fats. Fruits, nuts or seeds are better choices for snacks.
- Minimize exposure to pesticides and chemicals. Certain cancers like lymphomas and possibly breast cancer are linked to increased exposure to these compounds. Organic fruits and vegetables limit exposure while providing more trace minerals and vitamins than "factory farmed" produce.
- Reduce alcohol consumption. Excessive alcohol increases risk for many cancers, especially breast cancer. Limit consumption to one or two drinks daily, less if at high risk for breast cancer. Red wine seems to be the most healthful alcoholic beverage.
- Drink plenty of water and green tea. Water is essential to help flush waste products out of the cells. Drink 1 ounce of water for every 2 pounds body weight daily. Green tea is loaded with antioxidants and cancer-fighting phytochemicals. Regular consumption reduces cancer risk and, if cancer does occur, green tea slows tumor growth and can even enhance response to therapies.
- Don't smoke. Smoking not only increases risk of developing numerous cancers, it has recently been shown to increase the aggressiveness of existing cancers by promoting development of new blood supplies necessary for rapid tumor growth.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity increases cancer risk, especially for breast, prostate and colon cancers. Maintaining a healthy weight also protects against heart disease and diabetes.
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity reduces risk of most cancers, possibly because it reduces obesity and insulin levels.
- Have fun and limit stress. Our immune systems are affected by what we think and feel. Stressed-out people tend to have less efficient immune defenses against cancer. Take time to play. Consider a meditation or relaxation class. Set priorities and learn when to say no.
It isn't necessary to have a perfect diet to derive cancer-preventing benefits. Choose healthy foods 90 percent of the time and you will still benefit without feeling deprived. Even small changes improve your health and resistance to illness. Focus on including more healthy choices as much as avoiding the bad.
Making these wise choices will not only reduce your cancer risk, it will improve your overall health. And, the increased sense of energy and well being that comes from a healthy diet and lifestyle become an equally great reward.