It’s National Nutrition Month. Your team at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s Medical Nutrition Therapy department wants everyone involved this year. We want to make sure our patients, caregivers and staff get the right information to make small changes that make big differences towards a healthier diet.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ theme this year is “Put Your Best Fork Forward,” which serves as a reminder that each one of us holds the tool to make healthier food choices. Making small changes during National Nutrition Month helps improve health now and into the future.
We follow the American Institute of Cancer Research Recommendations for Cancer Prevention, which we are sharing with you here.
The following are most commonly asked questions and our answers.
Q: I spend a lot of time at work. Where do I find time to exercise?
A: Start by incorporating exercise on your days off work. Make this a routine and then begin to incorporate exercise into your work day by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to another building to eat lunch, walk for 10 minutes outside when you have a break or consider taking a walk during your lunch break. Avoid sitting when possible and instead use a standing desk or stand up while talking on the phone. Keep in mind, any activity is better than nothing and as you work towards more regular activity, aim for 30-60 minutes per day. Start the day by incorporating exercise prior to leaving for work. We all know that motivation can dip after a hectic work day. Or, bring your exercise clothes and make it a routine to stop and run/walk on your way home from work.
We know that regular physical activity helps avoid weight gain and activity can also help to prevent cancer by keeping hormone levels in check. Having high levels of some hormones can increase cancer risk. Activity also helps keep our digestive system healthy by promoting peristalsis and strengthens our immune system.
Q: What are processed meats and why do they cause cancer?
A: Meats preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives are considered “processed”. Examples include ham, bacon, pastrami, salami, hot dogs and sausages. Research on processed meat shows cancer risk starts to increase with even small portions eaten daily.
When meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives, cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) can form. These substances can damage cells in the body, leading to the development of cancer.
Q: I am constantly hearing different guidelines about alcohol. How do I balance the protective heart benefit against cancer risk?
A: All types of alcohol increases the risk for many different types of cancer– mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver and breast, as well as colorectal cancer in men.
For cancer prevention, AICR recommends not to drink alcohol. However, their expert report recognizes that modest amounts of alcohol may have a protective effect on coronary heart disease. If you do drink alcohol, limit your consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
This graphic depicts one “standard” alcohol-containing drink:
Q: I didn’t know that being overweight increased my risk for cancer. What is a healthy weight? How does being overweight contribute to cancer risk?
A: According to AICR, their experts estimate that about 1/3 of cancers that occur every year in the US could be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active and eating a nutritious diet.
It’s not only being overweight or obese, but where you store fat that impacts cancer and other disease risk such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Although Body Mass Index is not perfect, it does provide a guide for weight goals. Aim to stay in the “healthy range.” Calculate your BMI using the National Institutes of Health’s calculator here.
Questions by patients:
Q: This list is overwhelming. How do I start?
A: Start by choosing one or two recommendations to follow. For example, aim to cut down on sugary drinks to start. Make a plan to avoid purchasing soda and juice and instead choose alternative beverages. A few ideas include: carbonated water with a splash of fresh fruit juice (lemon, lime, orange), brewed tea or infused water.
After incorporating this recommendation as a habit for a month or so, choose another recommendation to incorporate.
We know that regularly consuming sugary drinks contributes to weight gain.
Kerry McMillen is a Registered Dietitian and the Medical Nutrition Therapy Supervisor at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.