Eating Healthy Cuts Cancer Risk, Too

Weight, weight, weight. Sometimes that seems to be what everyone talks about these days when it comes to our health.

We are getting fatter. We will get sicker. Some of the gains we have made in life span are at risk if we don't do something about our increasing waists, and do it soon.

But did you know that overweight and obesity are tied to an increased risk of several different types of cancers, such as breast cancer in post-menopausal women, as well as cancers of the colon, endometrium (uterus), esophagus and kidney?

So, what can you do about it?

Thursday, Aug. 16, the American Cancer Society launches its Great American Eat Right Challenge to help you learn more about what you should be doing to get your diet — and your weight — under control, and to reduce your risk, not only of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension but of cancer as well.

Diet a Weighty Consideration for Cancer Risk

Most of us know that smoking is bad for us, and one of the main reasons is that tobacco products increase the risk of cancer, as well as other life-threatening diseases. But most of us aren't aware that being overweight or obese also significantly increases the risk of cancer.

Since most Americans today do not smoke, that makes nutrition and physical activity one of the most important things people can do for themselves to decrease their risk of cancer.

The trick, according to American Cancer Society guidelines, is to follow a healthy diet that emphasizes plant foods. In addition to maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising regularly, this dietary adjustment is a key element in a healthy lifestyle that can help prevent cancer.

The basic rules, besides emphasizing plant sources of food in our diet, include:

Eating five or more servings of a variety of vegetables and fruits each day.

Choosing whole grains (as spelled out on the package as the main ingredient: w-h-o-l-e g-r-a-i-n-s) instead of processed (refined) grains.

Limit consumption of processed and red meats.

If you want more information, including a great instructive video by my colleague Colleen Doyle on how to shop at the supermarket, you can go to the Great American Eat Right Challenge Web site.

There is a lot of practical information on the Web site that you may find helpful and interesting to see if you measure up to a healthy diet, or what you need to do to change your errant ways.

You can also call the American Cancer Society at 800-ACS-2345 for the same information. Our call center, staffed by knowledgeable cancer information specialists, is available 24 hours a day, every day.

The Challenge of Lifestyle Change

I can sympathize with every one of you out there, especially the older folks, who find it so difficult to get on track and lose some weight. I, too, have had a lifelong battle with being overweight and obese.

After a significant health scare, I tried to go back to a healthier diet.

After about 18 months, more or less, I have been able to lose a bit over 30 pounds. It hasn't been easy, and the reality is that it takes constant attention.

Sure, there are times when the limits come off, but for the most part, I am most successful when I follow some basic rules.

For example, I travel a lot. Airplanes are a fact of my life, sometimes many flights each week. And then, there are the meals on the road, which are difficult to control in terms of what they contain and when I get to eat them.

I avoid those airplane snacks. I carry calorie-controlled meal replacement and snack bars so I can sidestep the fried foods or fatty foods that are frequently served during meals at meetings, or what I may find at the airport (chicken Caesar salad without the croutons or dressing is becoming a too-regular habit. Occasionally, I throw in some sliced/diced fresh fruit in a cup).

I was once called "Mr. No Fun" by a server at a local waffle shop in north Georgia when I asked for an egg-white omelet, no cheese, no grits, no toast, and yes, please, some sliced tomatoes on the side.

For me, that's what it takes to get things right. That, and a lot of perseverance, since the results are slow to come.

The Great American Eat Right Challenge can arm you with information that you may find helpful in trying to make better choices.

For example, did you know that a 12-ounce beer is the equivalent of a 1½ mile walk? Or that 1 ounce of potato chips is also worth 1½ miles on your tired feet? How about the fact that two slices of thin (yes, THIN) crust pepperoni pizza is worth 5 miles?

I suspect most of us don't even walk 2 or 3 miles during the course of a day, let alone all the miles it would take to walk off the junk food we eat during the week.

How about this one: One extra large cheeseburger with sauce, one extra large french fries and one extra large soda. Want to take a guess at how many miles it will take to walk this meal off? The answer, if you're interested, is at the end of this column.

And then, there are portion sizes to consider. Do you know what a normal portion of pasta — a half cup or a whole cup — looks like on your plate?

My wife and I like to go to a neighborhood Italian restaurant that is part of a large national chain. Great food, good atmosphere, relatively inexpensive, fun and humongous portions. We are actually able to eat several more meals during the week from the food we take home each time we visit this place.

We have no idea how they remain profitable when they load so much on your plate, but if we ate everything they served, we would have to run more than a marathon to work it off!

I think by now you get the idea.

Small Sacrifice, Big Benefits

Some may say that eating right and being healthy means giving up everything you like. I would argue that this is not the case.

No one is perfect. It's the approach you take to your diet — and your life — that dictates who you are and how you feel. It also dictates whether you will be able to live your life relatively free of disease, and have the mobility to enjoy that life.

By the way, I went back to the waffle place the next day, and the server remembered me. "You're that 'no fun' guy," she said.

Well, I would dispute that I have no fun. I just make different choices — most of the time.

The benefits are that my weight is down, my blood pressure is down, my cholesterol is down, my flexibility is up, and I am enjoying life just fine, thank you. And maybe because I have "no fun," I will have fun longer than I would have had otherwise.

Take a look at the Great American Eat Right Challenge Web site, and figure out what you can do for yourself and your family to eat better, stay healthier and reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases.

Make a plan, and do what works for you. I promise that you, too, can have plenty of fun getting healthy, and staying healthy.

Enjoy!

(Incidentally, the answer to the question about the number of miles it would take to walk off the extra large burger, extra large fries and extra large soda? 15 miles!)

Len Lichtenfeld is deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. You can view the full blog by clicking here.

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