These three steps can reduce cancer threat

  • By Dr. Elizabeth Smoots Herald Columnist
  • Monday, May 5, 2008 3:55pm
  • Life

You are not helpless when it comes to avoiding cancer. A few simple lifestyle steps can help you lower your risk of developing the deadly disease.

This hopeful message comes from the American Institute of Cancer Research in a landmark report released last fall.

Why now?

Nearly 1.5 million Americans are afflicted with cancer each year and more than half a million die from the disease.

Yet, knowing what to do about it is a confusing subject since an array of factors may elevate risk. Increasing age, family history, poor diet, excess weight, occupational hazards and exposure to chemicals and tobacco have all been linked to the condition.

The institute decided to cut to the core to find the advice we need for protection against cancer. Spearheading the effort were nine independent teams of scientists and 21 top experts who analyzed more than 7,000 studies in a project that took five years to complete.

The final product, “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective,” is the most comprehensive report of its kind ever published.

Here from the report are the top three recommendations for preventing all types of cancer.

1. Aim for a healthy weight throughout life: “The most striking finding in the report is that excess body fat increases risk for numerous cancers,” said Dr. Phillip James, one of the expert panelists and chairman of the International Obesity Task Force.

Convincing evidence links excess body fat to cancers of the colon, kidney, pancreas, esophagus, uterus and, in post-menopausal women, the breast.

Fat can influence cancer risk in several ways. It leads to the production of higher levels of growth factors and hormones that stimulate cancer cells to grow and divide. Fat cells worsen chronic inflammation, a process known to trigger cancer.

In addition, excess fat stored in the abdominal region contributes to insulin resistance. The resulting high insulin levels raise the risk for certain cancers.

“Even small amounts of excess body fat, especially if carried at the waist, increase risk,” James notes. “It is best to stay on the lean range of the normal weight level.”

The cancer institute advises aiming for a body mass index between 18.5 and 23.0. This is somewhat lower than the normal BMI range of 18.5 to 24.9.

2. Choose mostly plant foods; limit red and processed meat: You should eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, according to the institute. Why? A plant-based diet contains many plant compounds that your body can use to prevent or repair cell damage. Whole foods are a much better source of protective nutrients than are supplements, the institute emphasizes.

The report calls for limiting consumption of certain foods and drinks. On the list are sugary beverages, processed foods high in sugar or fat, salty foods and red or processed meats. If alcohol is consumed at all, the recommended limit is two drinks for men each day, or one for women.

3. Get exercise every day for 30 minutes or more: Physical activity helps reduce cancer risk by lowering hormone levels. Plus, regular exercise has an additive, or double-whammy, effect since it can help you avoid gaining excess weight.

The three key changes have the potential to save millions of lives. “If these recommendations were adopted around the world, scientists estimate it could prevent about one-third of global cancer cases,” James says.

For more information: American Institute of Cancer Research,

Contact Dr. Elizabeth Smoots, a board-certified family physician and fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians, at Her columns are not intended as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Before adhering to any recommendations in this column consult your health care provider.

&Copy; 2008 Elizabeth S. Smoots

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