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8 Lifestyle Habits to Reduce Cancer Risk

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Jan 9, 2017

In the United States, cancer ranks second only to heart disease as the leading cause of death and disability. According to the American Cancer Society, it is estimated that in 2017, there will be 1,688,780 new cases of cancer in the United States and 600,920 people will die from the disease.

All of us have been affected by cancer one way or another. We’ve either had a family member, friend or ourselves diagnosed with this dreadful disease. According to the World Health Organization, it is anticipated by 2032 cancer cases will have increased by about 70%. Encouraging news is the number of cancer survivors has increased while the overall cancer death rate in the United States has declined since the early 1990’s. Part of this trend is due to earlier detection, better treatment methods and improved education of the public on ways to prevent it. Even though progress is being made, there is still much work to be done.

What you can do to reduce cancer risk

It is still not completely understood what causes most cancers. We know our genes influence risk of cancer and exposure to carcinogens play a role also. Those factors we cannot always control. But there is one area we do have control over and that is our everyday lifestyle habits. The World Cancer Research Fund estimates about 20% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States are related to body fatness, physical inactivity, excess alcohol consumptions, and/or poor nutrition, all of which can be changed by most of us.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, about one-third of common cancers could be prevented by eating a healthy diet. Foods rich in cancer-fighting compounds such as polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids have powerful anti-inflammatory properties which promote cancer cell death. Here are the 8 steps you need to know to cut your cancer risk starting today:

  1. Maintain a healthy body weight

Carrying excess weight is likely to raise your risk for developing cancer. Obesity causes a rise in inflammation in the body and can have a negative effect on the immune system.

How to do this:

  • Avoid weight gains and increases in waist circumference throughout adulthood
  • If you’re currently overweight or obese, losing even a small amount of weight, about 5-10% of current body weight, has health benefits and is a good place to start.
  • Keep calorie levels reasonable for your age and activity level and keep portion size under control

2. Make physical activity a part of everyday life

Too little to no exercise is associated with a 30 to 40% increase in cancers of the breast, colon, kidney, pancreas, and uterus. Keeping physically active enhances an appropriate weight, strengthens the immune system and feelings of well-being.

How to do this:

  • Be moderately physically active for at least 150 minutes each week or be vigorously active for at least 75 minutes each week or combine the two throughout the week.
  • Limit sedentary habits such as sitting, lying down, watching TV, being on the computer or playing video games.

3. Reduce foods and beverages promoting weight gain

The more foods we eat with added sugar and fats, the more likely we’ll gain weight plus we take in less nutrients that may protect us from cancer cells developing.

How to do this:

  • Limit intake of energy-dense foods such as cookies, cakes, pies, ice cream.
  • Avoid drinks with added sugar
  • Eat “fast food” infrequently

4. Eat mostly plant foods

Plant-based foods are linked with a lower risk of cancer. Half of your plate at each meal should include a variety of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables.

How to do this:

  • Have a fruit and/or vegetable with every meal
  • Eat more cruciferous vegetables – examples are broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, rutabagas, Brussel sprouts
  • Eat more healthy unprocessed grains and/or legumes with every meal
  • Avoid refined starchy foods such as white flour, sugar or white rice

5. Limit alcohol

Alcoholic beverages may increase your risk of cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), esophagus, liver, breast, colon, and rectum. If combined with smoking, it is considered even more harmful.

How to do this:

  • If you choose to drink an alcoholic beverage, limit consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women

6. Limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat

Red meat and processed meats have been indicated as possibly increasing the risk of certain cancers such as colon and rectal cancers.

How to do this:

  • Eat red meat (beef, pork, lamb) no more than 1-2 times a week and limit portion sizes to 3-4 ounces
  • Eat very little processed meat (sausage, hot dogs, bacon, luncheon meat, pastrami)
 7. Aim to meet nutritional needs through food choices

When we make healthy food choices as much as possible, we are more likely to be obtaining the nutrients we need for good health. Our bodies prefer food over supplements and absorb the nutrients within food better.

How to do this:

  • Get nutrients from eating whole foods, not vitamin/mineral supplements
  • Dietary supplements are not recommended for cancer prevention
  • Improve your diet with better food choices if you believe you need a dietary supplement

8. Women should breastfeed their babies

Women who breastfeed reduce their risk of pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer. Breastfeeding causes hormonal changes delaying menstrual periods. This lessens a woman’s lifetime exposure to hormones like estrogen, which can promote breast cancer cell growth. Because breastfeeding prevents ovulation, it can also lower a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer again due to less exposure to estrogen and abnormal cells that could become cancerous.

How to do this:

  • Women should breastfeed exclusively for at least six months
  • For every 12 months a woman breastfeeds, her risk of breast cancer is reduced by 4.3%. This 12-month period could be with one child or as the total for several children.

Children who were breastfed also are at a lower risk of cancer during their lives. Breastfed babies have less risk of being overweight to obese later in life. Carrying excess weight can put a person at a disadvantage for many cancers such as pancreatic, breast, endometrial, esophageal, rectal, and kidney cancers.

We may not 100 % be able to keep away cancer from our lives, but the more we put into practice the advice in this article, the greater chance we have of reducing our risks and beating the odds of staying cancer free throughout our lifetime.

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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.