Kenneth L Abbott, MD, FACP  |  6/29/2022

Table Talk

If you were to ask what the one action is a person can take to lower her risk of developing cancer by a significant amount, the answer is easy: Never use tobacco products, and, if you do use them, quit as soon as possible. But as of 2020, the year for which we have the most up-to-date information, just one in eight adult Americans still smoke, while eight out of eight Americans of any age eat and drink. So, while eliminating tobacco exposure distinctly helpful in reducing cancer risk, knowing and following sound principles of diet and nutrition have the potential to benefit everyone.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) is on record as saying, “For most Americans who do not use tobacco, the most important cancer risk factors that can be changed are body weight, diet, and physical activity. At least 18% of all cancers diagnosed in the US are related to excess body weight, physical inactivity, excess alcohol consumption, and/or poor nutrition, and thus can be prevented.” The common factor in all of these risks is overweight and obesity, conditions that researchers have found contribute consistently and adversely to cancer risks, varying based on age, sex, and the site of cancer involvement. What a person does to reduce his risk of obesity will therefore improve his risk of developing many kinds of cancer. The kinds and amounts of food and drink we consume play a major role.

Despite what you may have read or heard, there is no particular “superfood” that has unique cancer-fighting power or will solve all your cancer-related problems. The interaction of diet, health, and disease, including cancer, is complex. Instead, researchers and clinicians have developed a set of guidelines, recommending what foods to include and what to limit or avoid. For the purposes of this article, I drew upon statements from the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), the ACS, and the Cleveland Clinic, and the highlights are as follows:

  1. A variety of vegetables and fruits of all colors (the deeper the color, the better), whole grains, pulses (legumes), and lentils should constitute the major portion of one’s daily diet. Eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily is best; for many Americans, following this advice would produce a significant change in their diet.
  2. Limit consumption of red meats (moderate), processed meats (hardly at all, if any), sugar-sweetened drinks (a significant cause of overweight in the US in both children and adults), and alcohol.
  3. “Smart” fats, particularly the monounsaturated kinds found in olive oil, nuts, and certain seed, have cardiovascular as well as weight management benefit when consumed regularly.
  4. The quantities we consume can have almost as much impact as the quality of our food choices. Limit portions by creating “white” space on your plate or use smaller plates (and don’t go back for seconds).

The AICR estimates that we can achieve a 10-20% overall reduction in cancer risk through this guidance. There exists, then, the potential to spare upwards of 100,000 Americans every year a cancer diagnosis. I’d say that was a worthwhile effort, especially if you’re the person being spared.
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