Cancer prevention: The diet, exercise, and weight connection


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Eating a healthy diet and weight management is a simple – but effective – cancer prevention plan.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that almost 600,000 people died from cancer in 2015, and more than 1.7 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed.

These numbers are scary. But there is something you should know: Managing your weight can reduce your risk of developing cancer.

It seems too simple, but it’s true. As many as one in five cancer-related deaths is linked to obesity – excess body weight. If we don’t start taking control of our weight now, obesity is expected to contribute to approximately half a million new cases of cancer in the United States by 2030.

How does your weight affect your cancer risk?

As your weight increases, your insulin levels increase. This may be why obese patients have an increased risk of developing colon cancer and also a higher likelihood that their colon cancer will come back.

Obese patients also have a much higher risk of breast cancer and cancer recurrence, likely because obese patients have much higher estrogen levels. Estrogen is the driving force behind two-thirds of the postmenopausal breast cancer we treat. Fat cells convert cholesterol molecules to estrogen. The additional estrogen causes a hormonal imbalance, which can stimulate cell growth and division, increasing the chance of mutations developing.

But how do you know if you’re overweight or obese? You can use an online calculator to check your body mass index (BMI). Aim for a BMI of 25 or lower for optimal health. If your BMI is 30 or higher, you are considered obese and should see your physician to develop a weight management plan.

Healthy diet tips

When we start to gain weight, it can be hard to get back on track. You may be inclined to cut your calories. It makes sense, right? Fewer calories equal less weight?

Actually, you can’t lose a significant amount of weight just by dieting. When you cut back your food intake, you will lose some weight in the beginning, which can make you feel like you’re on the right track. But if you don’t eat appropriately, the weight loss will quickly plateau. Your body’s “caveman” instincts will kick in, and your body will hang on to your calories instead of burning them.

This process slows down your metabolic rate; that means you’ll burn fewer calories, and you’ll be right back where you started – taking in more calories than you burn.

Eating for healthy weight loss and weight maintenance can be frustrating at first. But what it comes down to is eating a well-balanced diet of whole, nutritious foods:

  • Whole-grains: Foods in this group generally contain less sugar and more fiber than their white flour counterparts.
  • Fruit: Choose fruits rich in antioxidants, including oranges, blueberries, strawberries, and prunes. Research is underway to determine the connection between antioxidants and cancer prevention; regardless, the vitamins and fiber in fruit are key to a healthy diet.
  • Vegetables: Leafy, green vegetables – including kale, spinach, asparagus, and broccoli – are high in vitamins and fiber and are more filling than junk food. They also have anti-inflammatory properties. Research continues on the link between chronic inflammation and certain types of cancer.
  • Lean protein: Opt for fish (which is high in omega-3s), beans, or lean cuts of quality meat instead of processed meats like bacon or lunch meat.
  • Water: Swap water for soda, and shoot for 64 ounces (8 glasses) per day. Doing so keeps you hydrated and can keep you from drinking – and even eating – extra calories. Often when we feel hungry, we’re actually just thirsty.

Remember that none of us is perfect. If you try to completely avoid a food you love, such as chocolate, you may wind up overdoing it if you give in and have some. Occasional treats are fine, as long as you enjoy them sometimes, and not every day.

Exercise tips for weight loss

To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume. The only way to do that is to add exercise to your daily routine. Exercise increases your metabolism, which will help you burn more calories throughout the day. Exercise also builds muscle, and the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn for any activity.

If you aren’t already following an exercise plan, start with walking. It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting a workout plan to make sure you aren’t setting yourself up for injury.

After your doctor visit, here’s a walking plan to get started:

  • Week 1: Walk 10 to 15 minutes daily
  • Week 2: Walk 15 to 20 minutes daily
  • Week 3: Walk 20 to 25 minutes daily
  • Week 4: Walk 25 to 30 minutes daily

Every week, add a few minutes and pick up the pace. Your goal after four to six weeks should be to walk 35 to 40 minutes at a brisk pace, five days each week. It sounds like a big commitment and a lot of work, so grab a neighbor, loved one, or furry friend to join you. Having a workout buddy can help take your mind off the exercise and gives you a chance to enjoy the outdoors and conversation.

For even more fun, challenge your family or co-workers to see who can take the most steps in a day. Using a pedometer (you can find inexpensive step-counters online and in local stores for $10 or less), track the number of steps you take daily for a month. The person with the most steps at the end of the month gets a (non-food) reward. Adding a bit of rivalry can be a good motivator, especially if there’s a really great prize at stake!

If you’re actively working toward a fitness goal, such as losing weight or running a 5K, you may find it helpful to use a fitness app. There are many available – many are even free – and they offer a wide range of tracking options, such as calorie intake and miles walked or run. Some apps even offer friendly competitions between you, your friends, and other app users across the country. That sense of community can help boost your confidence and increase your accountability as you work toward your goals.

Tracking your routine with a mobile app makes it easy to share your activities and progress with your physician. Together, you can review your routine and find areas for improvement to help you stay on track and achieve your goals.

Are you ready to call out cancer? With support and dedication, you can manage your weight and build a strong defense against cancer. Request an appointment with a dietitian or physician to talk about your goals.