Exercise and Healthy Diet May Reduce Cancer Risk

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

SEPTEMBER 01, 2020

Healthy Vegetable SkewersThe American Cancer Society has just released new guidelines about exercise and diet that may reduce the risk of cancer. Note that these are not offered as a way to reduce the risk of recurrence, but common sense would suggest that there may be an association. At least, we can be pretty certain that it won't hurt us or make things worse to pay some attention.

If you are content with my summary, just keep reading. Most importantly, nothing is a guarantee. If you followed every single suggestion with no slips, it is not a promise of continuing good health. It is also useful to remember that there are no magic bullets (e.g., three cups of broccoli per day) that can save you. Remember, too, that these guidelines are not so different from the familiar ones that are suggested for general good health. Good habits that may protect against diabetes or heart disease and keep your weight in check may help with cancer risk, too.

I like their commonsense approach. The core message is the importance of maintaining a healthy weight by a combination of diet and exercise. Losing even a few pounds can make a difference, and it is less daunting to consider a smaller goal. They suggest moving more and sitting less, having active fun, and building more steps/exercise into one's daily routine. You know all the usual suggestions: park further from the store, take the stairs, and consider walking on short errands.

The food tips are manageable, too. As always, the emphasis is on whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, and less red meat. They go on to suggest lower calorie ways of cooking, e.g., broiling rather than frying, and to remind us about portion control. In these pandemic days when we are all cooking more and eating at home, it is easier to take control. When we are able to resume restaurant meals, it is possible that their portions will look enormous, and we will feel comfortable asking to take the left-overs home for tomorrow's lunch.

Finally, there is the inevitable inclusion of alcohol recommendations. Beginning with a statement that it is best not to drink alcohol at all, they go on to the rule about 1 drink/day for women and 2 drinks/day for men. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of most spirits. From this perspective, it does not matter what you drink; they all carry the same risk.

How you think about all of this and, perhaps, incorporate some of the suggestions into your daily life is up to you. There are people who do best with rigid rules; others do better with flexibility. My own bias is that we need to be good to ourselves, to remember that food and drink (for most of us) are among life's pleasures, and that life is short.

Different people care more or less about their palates and breaking bread together. My mother never cared a whit about what she ate, and often opined that it would be great if one could just take a daily vitamin equivalent and be done with it. Maybe that is why I am obsessed with thinking about food and what to cook for dinner.

Whatever you think about food choices, please allow yourself some treats and pleasures. Yes, I fully agree that we need to try to make healthy choices, maintaining a healthy weight is vitally important, and exercise must be part of our daily routines. However, I am absolutely certain that no one, at the end of life, ever thought I sure am glad that I didn't have that order of onion rings.

How do you think about diet and exercise and cancer? Join the BIDMC Cancer Community and share your thoughts.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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