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Cancer prevention with diet and exercise

Woman in a spin class
June 17, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

If there’s one disease that dominates the airwaves—and the minds of millions of Americans—it’s cancer. We devote entire months to raising awareness. (By now, everyone associates October with breast cancer.) Millions of people run races and raise funds to help find a cure. And thousands of social network communities are formed to rally around warriors fighting the disease.

It’s wonderful how cancer can pull people together in a common cause—to put an end to a terrible disease. However, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: For all the emphasis on treatment and cure, we should be focusing at least as much energy on prevention.

Preventing a condition such as cancer is so much easier than having to treat it once it’s started its assault on your body.

One of my breast cancer patients, Mary, said it best: “If every single healthy person could walk in my shoes for one day, they would do everything in their power to prevent this from happening to them. They would no longer take their health for granted. They would start to eat better, exercise, and live a healthier lifestyle.

Hindsight’s always 20/20, but I know now that my weight and lack of exercise probably played a big role in why I got cancer.”

Mary’s right. The American Cancer Society estimates that one-third of cancers can be attributed to poor eating habits, physical inactivity, and being overweight or obese. And a recent study published earlier this year claims that “successful lifestyle changes could prevent 25-30 percent of cases of breast cancer.”

As such, diet and exercise should be your top two lines of defense against cancer.

A proper diet provides your body with important nutrients, such as antioxidants, that help reduce the likelihood of cancer. But it’s not just about what should you eat…it’s also about what you shouldn’t eat.

A study published in 2014 unveiled dietary guidelines you should follow if you want to protect against certain types of cancer. Here are some of the findings:

  • Avoid dairy. Researchers found that drinking two glasses of milk per day increased risk of prostate cancer by 60 percent!
  • Cut back on booze. Indulging in alcohol raises the chances of getting larynx, esophageal, colorectal, and breast cancers. They determined that two or three drinks daily elevated colorectal cancer risk by 21 percent.
  • Limit processed/red meat. Processed meats such as bacon or sausage increased colorectal cancer risk by 21 percent. And red meat upped risk by 28 percent. (I don’t eat processed meat, but I do enjoy red meat once in a while. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, you should watch your intake. Otherwise, I think it’s ok to eat red meat two to four times a month, as long as it’s grass-fed varieties, which are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fatty acids.)
  • Avoid grilling, frying, and broiling. The researchers discovered that these methods of cooking meats influenced cancers of the colon, rectum, breast, kidney, prostate, and pancreas.

The study’s main takeaway was this: Keep the emphasis on vegetables and fruits (preferably organic). These nutrient-dense foods help diminish overall cancer risk. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, are associated with an 18 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer. Veggies rich in carotenoids, such as sweet potatoes and carrots, lessen breast cancer risk by 19 percent. And lycopene-rich tomatoes can reduce gastric cancer by 27 percent.

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Chronic Inflammation Decoded

In addition to loading up on these plant-based foods, drink lots of water and green tea, which contains antioxidant polyphenols that protect against DNA damage and activate tumor-suppressing enzymes in the body. Finally, stay away from sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, processed foods, and trans fats. Limit (or, based on family history of cancer, avoid) dairy, red meat, and alcohol.

If you can do this, you’re well on your way to slashing your risk of many forms of cancer. Adding exercise into the mix can help even more.

Walk Away from Cancer

Along with good diet, exercise can prevent obesity—one of the biggest risk factors for cancers of the breast, colon, uterus, kidney, pancreas, thyroid, and esophagus. Physical activity can also dampen inflammation. Chronic low-grade inflammation has been linked with several forms of this disease.

Research has shown that physical activity does the best job of deterring two types of cancer: colorectal and breast.

A 2009 meta-analysis that examined 52 studies confirmed the preventive properties of exercise on colorectal cancer, noting that the benefits can be seen in both men and women. The National Cancer Institute further supports this, stating that people who regularly work out have a 40-50 percent lower risk compared to those who do not.

Research also shows that women who engage in exercise three or more hours per week cut their breast cancer risk by up 25 percent or more—regardless of family history or other factors. Some studies even suggest that working out can prevent other gynecological cancers such as endometrial (by up to 30 percent) and ovarian (by 20 percent). Exercise moderates estrogen levels—a major underlying factor in the development of women’s cancers.

Exercise for just one hour a day, three or four days per week. That’s all you need to cut your risk.

Don’t be part of the one-third of Americans who develop cancer because of poor diet or exercise habits. Heed my advice and Mary’s. Start preventing today.

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