Wouldn’t it be great if there were a magic food you could eat to prevent cancer? It turns out that this is not necessarily pie-in-the-sky thinking. In fact, healthy eating plays a significant role in cancer prevention, which is why Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) offers nutrition visits at no charge to its patients.
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) estimates that 1 in 4 Americans will develop cancer in their lifetime. A minority of those cancers are spurred by genetics. But lifestyle and environmental factors also contribute, which is why good nutrition and weight control can help lower risk. It’s a message that Kerry McMillen, who supervises medical nutrition therapy at SCCA, wants to convey during March – National Nutrition Month – and throughout the rest of the year.
As many as 40 percent of cancer diagnoses could be averted through diet, weight management and exercise, according to AICR. Twelve cancers are linked to excess body fat, which can spur the growth of cancer cells. Rates of some cancers are increasing as people gain more weight at earlier ages than in previous generations.
At SCCA, registered dietitians who are board-certified specialists in oncology nutrition meet with patients seen at SCCA’s prevention clinics, such as those dedicated to prevention of breast, ovarian and gastrointestinal cancers. They also consult with other patients, depending upon a particular diagnosis or treatment regimen. A dietitian is assigned to meet with all bone marrow or stem cell recipients, for example, before and after treatment.
Physicians at SCCA can refer their patients to Nutrition; patients can also refer themselves. “We accommodate all types of patients,” says McMillen. “Some patients see us because they can’t eat and need a feeding tube while others are eating perfectly well but are motivated to make a diet change.”
SCCA has a team of 10 registered dietitians whose expertise is included in a patient’s care, in contrast to other institutions that charge for the service. It’s a unique model that speaks to the organization’s belief that what you eat matters. “Our leadership felt strongly that we need to be patient-centered and offer nutrition services while removing cost as a barrier,” says McMillen.
“Our goal as a department is that when patients end their treatment, they learn what to do to prevent cancer from recurring or prevent another cancer from developing from a nutrition perspective,” says McMillen. “Just because you’ve been diagnosed with cancer doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think about the role that diet and body weight play going forward.”
Everyone can benefit from eating healthier, not just those people who have been diagnosed with cancer or have a higher risk of developing cancer. Try following these tips:
*Start by overhauling your plate, filling two-thirds with plant foods including vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains. Plant-based foods contain phytochemicals, which can help safeguard cells from changes that can lead to cancer.
*Eat lots of fiber, ideally between 30 to 50 grams per day. Fiber intake has been associated with decreased risk of cancer, including breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
*Keep calorie consumption under control by limiting fast food and processed foods, as well as sugary foods including sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
*Reduce risk of colorectal cancer by limiting red meat (beef, pork, lamb) to a maximum of 18 cooked ounces per week. Processed luncheon meats and bacon are even more concerning to experts, who recommend avoiding them.
*Drink alcohol in moderation (one drink a day for women; two for men) – or not at all. Alcohol is linked to increased cancer risk.
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