The American Cancer Society has just released its 2006 update of our guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention.
I’m sorry to tell you that if you like to sit in front of your television watching reality shows, or enjoy those huge double-thick burgers at the local fast-food emporium, you are plain out of luck.
On the other hand, if you watch your weight, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, you are taking some of the steps needed to reduce your risk of cancer, according to the guidelines.
My first reaction as I read this informative document was that there simply is no fun left in the world. Then I realized that many of us—including yours truly—have had to modify our “lifestyle” behaviors, increase our exercise, decrease our calories, and pay attention to what we eat.
Despite those restrictions, we still find plenty of things to eat and plenty of things to do that we enjoy. And, most of all, we can take comfort in the fact that we are able to take some degree of control over our lives, improve our health, and give our best effort to staying active, mobile and alive.
Of course, there are no guarantees in life. But knowing that you are doing the best you can do for yourself and your family is--in my humble opinion--reward enough.
If you are interested in knowing what science has to say about diet, exercise and their impact on the risk of developing specific types of cancer, you can find the information you are looking for in this very well written, easy-to-understand publication which is available online.
So what are the core recommendations?
For individual choices:
- Maintain a healthy weight throughout life
- Adopt a physically active lifestyle
- Consume a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant sources
- If you drink alcoholic beverages, limit consumption
For community action:
- Public, private and community organizations should work to create social and physical environments that support the adoption and maintenance of healthful nutrition and physical activity behaviors
There is obviously more to these guidelines than just these five bulleted points.
For example, one of the additional pieces of information is that if you are overweight and obese, you should lose weight.
We have developed evidence over the past several years that strengthens the association between being overweight and obese with an increased risk of developing several types of cancer.
As pointed out in the article, 14-20% of all cancer deaths are related to overweight and obesity.
As the country continues to march on to increasing levels of obesity (2/3 of the people in the United States are overweight or obese; 1/3 of all cancers can be tied to factors related to nutrition and physical activity), we face an increasing cancer risk—not to mention the well known associations with hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease among other travails.
What we have not known is whether or not losing weight can decrease that risk.
The guidelines point out that there are now studies which suggest that some cancer risks, particularly for breast cancer, may be reduced with weight loss.
The evidence can only be considered suggestive at this time, but it is sufficient in the opinion of the committee that drafted the guidelines to make a recommendation to lose weight and possibly reduce your risk of developing one of these weight-sensitive cancers.
Exercise is also a very prominent component of these recommendations. And we aren’t talking about a couple of minutes a day. We are talking about a significant commitment here if we are to gain the benefits that exercise offers for our general health, as well as reducing our risk of cancer and other diseases.
If you are an adult, then the guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise BEYOND USUAL ACTIVITIES 5 or more days a week. They go on to say that 45 to 60 minutes is preferable.
For children and adolescents, the recommendation is at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least 5 days a week.
That is quite a bit of exercise, and I emphasized above that we are talking above and beyond our usual daily routines.
If you are a farmer, you are probably getting enough vigorous exercise in your daily routine.
On the other hand, if you are an executive sitting at a desk 8 or 10 or more hours a day, you probably don’t get enough exercise.
Many of us have our daily conflicts with kids, work, after-school activities and whatever that we claim interferes with our ability to meet this goal.
Let me share with you that my wife and I are probably as busy as anybody out there, and we manage to incorporate this recommendation into our daily lives on a fairly regular basis.
It takes some doing—like getting up at 5:30 in the morning—but it can be done. And always look for those opportunities to work in some extra walking, such as parking further from the store, walking in the airport instead of taking the train between terminals, climbing the stairs at work, and so on. For my wife and me, a 5 mile walk on a beautiful canopy road early Sunday mornings is something we look forward to whenever our travel schedule provides the opportunity to be home on the weekends.
Ultimately, what all of these diet and exercise recommendations are about is changing the balance between what we take in (as food) and what we put out (as exercise). As a nation, we have too much of the former and too little of the latter.
The report also emphasizes how important it is for us to give our children a good example and education for their own diet and exercise programs. What they do as kids will follow them for a lifetime, and if we are going to solve this complex problem, we need to start with our young folks.
There are a number of specific food-related do’s and don’ts in the report, and far too many for me to review in detail here.
But as you might suspect, the recommendations reinforce that we need to eat more fruits and vegetables (no, potato chips are not a vegetable), watch the calorie contents of our foods, avoid red meats, and avoid refined grains and sugars.
Fruits and vegetables are, in the words of the report, complex. As noted by the authors, each type of fruit and vegetable contains “numerous potentially beneficial vitamins, minerals, fiber, carotenoids and other bioactive substances, such as flavonoids, terpenes, sterols, indoles, and phenols that may help prevent cancer.”
I will admit I am not familiar with several of the items mentioned above. What I do know is that fruits and vegetables work in our bodies in ways that we still don’t understand, so there is no shortcut or substitute for eating the real thing if we want to get the benefits of what they have to offer.
As the report points out, for most substances, getting it in its natural form as opposed to a pill or other supplement is probably preferable, due to all of these complex components and their interactions. In fact, in some circumstances—particularly beta-carotene supplements—studies have found an increased risk of cancer when taking the pill as opposed to eating the carrot.
Processed and red meats are another no-no, except in very limited amounts.
One of my colleagues, who happens to be a lead author of this report, has a special aversion to bacon, which she describes as “pure fat.” (I didn’t bother to educate her about fat back, a real “pure pork fat” ingredient in some Southern diets.)
What we do know is that red meat (defined as beef, pork, or lamb) and processed meats (defined as cold cuts, bacon, hot dogs, etc.) increase the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum and prostate, and possibly for other sites as well.
If you like alcohol, you should limit your intake, according to the guidelines. And, if you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start.
That said, limited quantities of alcohol consumption do decrease the risk of heart disease, and studies have shown people who are modest drinkers do live longer than those who don’t consume alcohol or those who consume too much.
What is the right amount? For men, two drinks a day; for women, one. And, if you are concerned regarding your risk of breast cancer, you probably should eliminate alcohol from your diet.
A serving, by the way, is 4 ounces of wine, a 12 ounce beer, or 1 ½ ounces of 80 proof liquor (that’s about a shot glass).
These are just some of the highlights of the report.
The authors go on to detail what evidence exists or doesn’t exist regarding the relationship of diet and exercise to specific cancers, as well as provide answers to frequently asked questions about various foods, vitamins, and supplements in relation to what we know about their effects on various types of cancer.
One of the interesting and important points the authors make is about the impact of new research reports on the public’s knowledge about their impact on cancer risk.
We all know how difficult it can be to understand and assimilate this mass of information into our daily lives and behaviors. If we listened to every new nutrition or physical activity “breakthrough” with respect to cancer, we could potentially be overcome with “analysis paralysis.” That, in turn, might lead us to throw up our arms in disgust and walk away from our commitment to do what we know we need to do.
So what are we supposed to do?
As the authors write:
“Because people are interested in the relationship that specific foods, nutrients or lifestyle factors have to specific cancers, research on health behaviors and cancer risk is often widely publicized. Health professionals who counsel patients should emphasize that no one study provides the last word on any subject, and that individual news reports may overemphasize what appear to be contradictory or conflicting results. In brief news stories, reporters cannot always put new research findings in their proper context. The best advice about diet and physical activity is that it is rarely, if ever, advisable to change diet or activity levels based on a single study or news report.”
That is why, in this day of the information age and rapid reporting of new information, it is important to know where to go to get reliable, accurate and actionable information.
This report on nutrition and physical activity to reduce the risk of cancer is an important one. It is a place you can go to get the information you need, confident in the knowledge that the experts who have contributed their time and knowledge have provided information that represents the best anyone can offer on this complicated topic.
No hype, no sugar-coating (pardon the pun). Just some good, honest advice on what you need to do to take care of yourself and your family.
As I have written many times before, there is no time like the present to make the commitment to do better when it comes to lifestyle changes.
This report provides you with the information and recommendations that you need to know.
Making the change is up to you.