What increases your risk of developing cancer? If you answered chemicals, pollution and genetics, you're consistent with the majority of those who responded to the American Institute for Cancer Research Cancer Risk Awareness Survey.
"While these factors are certainly a concern, the biggest risks are found inside, not outside, your own body," said Terri Taylor, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition. "Your body weight, exercise and eating habits play a role in cancer prevention and survivorship."
Historically, cancer research has focused on the tumor itself. Now investigators are learning that the environment surrounding the tumor — the microenvironment — may have the most influence on the development, growth and spread of cancer cells.
Hormones, growth factors and blood vessels make up the tumor microenvironment. Each can create chronic inflammation, immune system defects and oxidative stress to potentially feed cancer cell growth. Oxidative stress is the total burden placed on an organism by the production of free radicals during metabolism, plus environmental pressures such as toxins.
What does this have to do with you? Your lifestyle choices can help influence the microenvironment to reduce your cancer risk, said Taylor, nutrition educator for the HonorHealth Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center.
She suggests following these guidelines to optimize your health:
- Maintain a healthy body weight. Research links obesity to a higher risk of 13 cancers, as well as heart disease and diabetes. Body fat, especially belly fat, produces hormones to promote chronic inflammation and increase cancer risk.
- Eat a variety of plant foods daily. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and spices provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are natural plant substances that exert anti-cancer effects. Phytochemicals reduce inflammation and oxidation, cut off blood flow and nourishment to cancer cells, and support normal immune function.
- Eat plenty of fiber. It binds cancer-promoting hormones including estrogen, testosterone and insulin-like growth factor and eliminates them from your body. Eating fiber fills you up, not out, to help control weight. At every meal, cover half of your plate with vegetables and fruits and the remainder with whole grains and lean protein.
- Cut down on red and processed meats. Eating more than 18 ounces of beef, veal, lamb and pork per week poses a cancer risk. Their saturated fat and iron are thought to be the culprits. Nitrates, nitrites and the smoking and curing processes used in cold cuts, bacon, sausage and hot dogs seem to foster cancer growth. Uncured products without chemicals are available.
- Eat more legumes, skinned poultry and fish.
- Reduce the amount of grilled meat you eat. Cancer-causing chemicals can be formed when grilling or charring meat, poultry and fish. Instead, use marinade or a dry rub of herbs. And cook meat, poultry and fish at slow, low temperatures to counteract the damage.
- Be physically active. Moving your body reduces body fat and hormone production. This, in turn, decreases inflammation. Whatever activity you enjoy — walking, biking, swimming, dancing or something else — aim for a total of 30 minutes a day at least five days a week.
- Take advantage of nearby farmer's markets, community-supported agriculture, cooking classes, gyms, walking and biking paths, and pools to keep your body lean, green, and cancer unfriendly!
See our community events and classes for more information.
A version of this article originally appeared on GreenLivingAZ.com.