Preventing Cancer – Research Gives 6 Tips


Funny (or sad!) how the older I get the more I see friends, colleagues and family being struck down by cancer in all it’s viscious forms. This year the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) turns 30 years old! I’ve long been a subscriber to their Cancer Research Update. When the AICR started back in 1982, the idea that diet, physical activity and weight played a role in lowering cancer risk was only just emerging. Now the evidence is conclusive – approximately one-third of the most common cancers are preventable through what we eat, what we weigh and how much we move. Add in not smoking or chewing tobacco and many more cancers could be prevented.

When it comes to how diet, weight and physical activity link to cancer risk, here are the six big tips the AICR suggest for preventing cancer:

1. Maintain a healthy weight and watch out for the belly fat

One of the strongest findings from AICR is the link between excess body fat and cancer. Overweight and obesity increased the risk of seven types of cancer, including colorectal, esophageal, post-menopausal breast and kidney. Being a healthy weight also reduces the risk of other chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Scientists once considered all fat about the same. Research now shows fat is a metabolically active tissue and too much of some types of fat are especially harmful. Visceral fat, which lies deep inside the abdomen, is linked with increased risk of cancer – and metabolic disorders – regardless of body weight.

2. High fiber diets lower cancer risk

The research is clear regarding colorectal cancer. AICR’s latest report on colorectal cancer, concluded that the evidence linking dietary fiber to reduced risk of colorectal cancer was convincing. For every 10 grams of fiber consumed daily (slightly less than a cup of beans) the risk of colorectal cancer is reduced by 10 percent. Recently, a similar review of the evidence found that high fiber diets may also protect against breast cancer.

3. Eat the food, not the supplement

Some is good, more is not necessarily better: that’s the take-away message after years of research on supplements and cancer risk. The focus on single nutrients and “superfoods” has now shifted to whole foods and eating patterns. Studies on supplement use and cancer risk are mixed. In some cases, high doses of supplements increased the risk of certain cancers. For example, in the 1990s, two large, well-designed clinical trials both reached the same conclusion: high amounts of beta-carotene supplements increased the risk of lung cancer among smokers.

Today, experts in this field agree, foods’ compounds do not act in isolation. Research is ongoing as to what, if any, supplements may reduce the risk of specific cancers for certain populations. (Aside from reducing cancer risk, there are health reasons why you may want to take supplements.)

4. Be Active, Avoid Inactivity

AICR concludes that regular moderate physical activity lowers the risk of several cancers, both independently and by preventing weight gain. Physical activity is linked to lower risk of colorectal, breast and endometrial cancers. In recent years, an emerging body of research points to the health hazards of inactivity, independent of the amount of exercise. Inactivity may influence energy metabolism, sex hormone levels and inflammation – all factors that play a role in cancer risk. At the 2011 AICR Research Conference, leading experts highlighted the new research on activity and inactivity; read more about it in the AICRBlog.

5. Cancer Survivors; Activity and Health

The rising number of cancer survivors has led to inroads in understanding how physical activity, weight and diet may help prevent recurrence and secondary cancers, and improve survivors’ quality of life. In 2010, an expert panel concluded that physical activity offers numerous benefits to cancer patients and survivors. New recommendations urged survivors to avoid inactivity, even cancer patients undergoing treatment. More recent studies have reached similar findings on the benefits of physical activity, such as the updated analysis published in January, 2012, in the British Medical Journal.

For breast cancer survivors, an AICR video offers some basic activities to get started.

6. The New Frontier: Get ready for the -omes

Unraveling the human genome a decade ago spurred several new fields of study. Among them is the field of nutrigenomics – how our genes influence our responses to nutrients. Then there’s the microbiome; the trillions of bacteria living in our gut that regulate digestion and metabolism. In 2011, a study published in the highly-respected journal Nature catalogued the gut microbiome at 3.3 million microbial genes, outnumbering previous estimates for the entire human body. The microbiome may influence inflammatory bowel disease, linked to an increased risk of colon cancer, and many other diet-cancer interactions. Other more recent large-scale fields of study include proteomics, the study of proteins, and the epigenome, changing the expression of our DNA without altering the DNA sequence.

Yet again, the bottom line is stay active, eat naturally, and watch the calories. Staying involved with masters sport will help all that!!

For more information on successful aging and what science says are the keys to successful aging, see Chapter 1 of my book The Masters Athlete.