In Health: Cancer Prevention, Risks & Myths


Cancer Prevention, Risks & Myths

Most people know by now that proper nutrition is essential to health. But scientific research also has shown that specific foods actually can help to prevent cancer, when paired with other lifestyle changes.

By Charlyn Fargo

Whole Grains For Cancer Prevention

A new report from the Ameri-can Institute of Cancer Research finds five habits that can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer:

- Eating whole grains and foods containing fiber reduces risk

- Excess body fat is one of the strongest factors that increase risk

- Consuming processed meats and high amounts of red meat increases risk

- Drinking two or more alcoholic drinks daily increases risk

- Daily moderate physical activity reduces the risk

But how many whole grains and fiber-rich foods are needed daily to reduce the risk? Scientists found strong evidence that eating three ounces of whole grain foods daily reduces the risk for colorectal cancer by 17 percent. Scientists attribute the cancer protection to the fiber, vitamin E, selenium, lignans, and phenols found in whole grain foods.

Sounds easy enough, but what are whole-grain foods? Oatmeal; brown rice instead of white; whole-wheat bread instead of white bread; and ancient grains such as quinoa, teff, millet, barley, amaranth and spelt. The definition of a whole grain is that it contains three components — the bran (where the fiber is), germ (where the nutrients are) and the endosperm (the starchy part). White flour and white rice are refined grains that have the bran and germ removed. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating at least half of your grains as whole grains. On average, Americans eat one serving of whole grains per day, leaving plenty of room for improvement for most of us.

To know if a food is a whole grain, read the label.

Look for 100 percent whole-wheat in bread products, listed as the first ingredient. For others grains, look for ingredients such as brown rice, quinoa, sorghum and rolled oats, which are examples of 100 percent whole grain foods.

Check the ingredient list to see if the first grain listed is a whole grain. For example, for bread, if whole wheat is listed first, it contains a significant amount of whole grain.

Here are some ways to increase whole grains in your diet:

- Choose quick-cooking grains such as instant brown rice or whole-wheat couscous if time is a concern. Add them to salads, stews, soups, and stir-fries.

- Overnight oats, with choices of add-ins, can make a great breakfast. Or add oats to muffins or meatloaf.

- Add whole-grain snacks, such as popcorn or crackers like Wheat Thins or Triscuits.

Weight and Cancer Risk

We all know being overweight or obese isn’t healthy. In fact, most of us have tried — at some point in our lives — to shed a few extra pounds. A recent look at weight and its effect on cancer should encourage all of us to keep trying.

Many people think that whether or not you get cancer is just luck of the draw. Or, that your chances are determined by genes you inherit from your parents. Being overweight or obese increases the risk for several types of cancer, including cancers of the colon, rectum, endometrium, liver, kidney, breast (in postmenopausal women), gallbladder, pancreas, and some parts of the stomach, ovary and esophagus. Obesity also raises the risk for developing advanced prostate cancer, according to Dr. Anne McTiernan with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.

But the good news is that some of these so-called “obesity-related” cancers can be prevented. It’s never too late to reduce your risk for these cancers. When researchers followed people who intentionally lost weight, they discovered that weight loss reduced risk for breast and other cancers, particularly in women.

McTiernan and colleagues conducted a series of clinical studies, assigning people by chance to weight-loss diets, exercise programs or control groups. They found that reducing weight through either diet or exercise significantly lowers the following cancer risk factors:

- Estrogens and testosterone, which are risk factors for breast and endometrial cancers.

- Inflammation-related proteins, which increase the risk for colon and other cancers.

- Proteins that control the growth of blood vessels. By lowering these, tumors would have less nourishment to grow.

- Insulin, glucose, and related metabolic factors, which if left unchecked, cause overgrowth of many cells including tumor cells.

- Oxidative stress, which results in normal cells being attacked, possibly inciting a cell to turn cancerous.

- Proteins made in fat tissue, which have been associated with increased cancer risk.

The amount of weight needed was not high — losing just 5 percent of starting weight had a big effect. So, for a person weighing 200 pounds at the start of the study, losing 10 pounds produced a beneficial effect.

The diet was simple — counting calories and reducing fat intake. Researchers found that participants who wrote down everything they ate, prepared their own meals, and didn’t skip meals lost the greatest amount of weight. They also found that exercise by itself produced little weight loss, but that regular, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise provided additional weight-loss benefits when added to the diet program.

The bottom line? It’s never too late to make health-improving changes. Start with a goal of losing 10 pounds. You might just dodge the cancer bullet.

Cancer Myths

Sadly, cancer has touched most of our lives in some way or another. The truth is that about a third of the most common cancers can be prevented through healthy eating, regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. However, there are a lot of myths surrounding just what healthy eating choices look like with cancer. Karen Collins, registered dietitian with the AICR, busts some of those myths in a recent article in Environmental Nutrition newsletter.

Does sugar “feed” cancer?
All cells in the body use sugar for fuel, and many (but not all) cancer cells take up blood sugar more rapidly than healthy cells. However, avoiding sugar doesn’t necessarily protect against cancer, because blood sugar comes from carbohydrate foods, too. When all carbohydrate is limited, the body has mechanisms to keep blood sugar within a relatively narrow range. Chronic high blood sugar, however, may increase cancer risk by prompting higher levels of insulin and certain growth factors. Also, high sugar intake can promote weight gain and perhaps lead to changes in gut bacteria and inflammation. The best bet is to keep blood sugar and insulin levels controlled with a healthy weight, regular exercise and a healthful diet that avoids big loads of carbohydrate at once, particularly sugars and refined grains.

Does going gluten-free reduce cancer risk?
Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley that poses no risk to most people. For people who have celiac disease, gluten creates damage in the intestines that could increase risk of cancer, which makes following a gluten-free diet essential. Emerging research suggests that some people without celiac disease may experience digestive tract pain, headache or fatigue that improves when gluten is avoided, but this sensitivity has not been linked to cancer risk. Unnecessarily avoiding gluten can result in reducing consumption of whole grains and their anti-inflammatory, cancer-protective fiber and phytochemicals.
If plant-based diets are recommended, should I follow a vegetarian diet? Diets heavy on red meat, refined grains, and sweets are linked with greater risk of cancer. However, vegetarian diets are simply one way of creating eating habits that focus on whole plant foods. Plant-rich eating that allows fish, poultry, meat and dairy foods a smaller portion of the plate — as seen in the Mediterranean and Asian diets — is also linked with lower cancer risk.

Does eating lots of produce reduce cancer risk?
Studies show the biggest drop in cancer risk comes from moving from Americans’ typical low consumption of fruits and vegetables to at least five servings (about 2½ cups) per day. More than this likely helps further reduce cancer risk, and may help some people satisfy hunger while limiting calories for a healthy weight.

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian at Hy-Vee in Springfield, Ill., and the media representative for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For comments or questions, contact her at or follow her on Twitter @Nutrition Rd. To find out more about Charlyn Fargo and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at  TL