Looking back at lessons learnt in 2021 on what can help us protect our health in the year ahead, there are three recurring themes that stand out on the role of nutrition in cancer risk and survivorship.
Sound Information Matters
COVID-19 has been a big part of conversations about health and health care throughout 2021. And unfortunately, sometimes a focus on steps that are promoted as offering protection against this very real health threat can obscure your view of the bigger picture of steps to protect your overall health.
- Obesity flies under the radar for many Americans as a source of increased risk of several of the most common types of cancer. AICR’s November 2021 Research Conference included presentations noting the increasing risk of some cancers in young adults. And the rising rates of obesity across all age groups now present a double-whammy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that adults—including young adults—with obesity face an increased risk of severe illness with COVID-19.
- Weight gain was common during COVID-19 as people experienced changes in what, where, when and why they ate, and when, where and how they could work in physical activity. Research continues to show that each 10-pound weight gain adds some increase in risk of post-menopausal breast cancer, for example. For many people, it really is time for an eating habit re-set.
- Alcohol, likewise, has long been a cancer risk of concern. And for some people, consumption increased during COVID-19. A study published this year estimates that alcohol was a cause of nearly 750,000 cancers in 2020. In this review, AICR explains that there’s a time lag between alcohol consumption and cancer development, making it smart to take steps now to turn around drinking habits that have gone off-track
Social media’s role in spreading information—and misinformation—on cancer and nutrition is the subject of growing discussion at research conferences and in scientific publications. Like the old game of “telephone,” as information gets transmitted from one source to the next, it becomes harder and harder for people to judge the accuracy of what they’re hearing, and the quality of the evidence on which the advice is based.
Want some clues to help you consider whether what you’re hearing is backed by good science? Check this from AICR: How to Sift Through Cancer and Nutrition Misinformation on Social Media.
Laboratory Studies: Vital, but Not a Final Answer
Studies in isolated cells and animals play a critical role in moving research forward. They allow scientists to explore how cell receptors and signaling, genetic expression and hormones could make an eating choice help or hurt in reducing the toll of cancer. But results of these studies are building blocks toward getting an answer, and don’t supply the answer themselves.
Examples of topics that generated a lot of interest—and confusion—in 2021:
- Superfoods: “Which are the best cancer-fighting fruits or vegetables?” As headlines battle over which food offers the most health-promoting power, it’s easy to lose track of the need for a variety of different protective nutrients and compounds, and the importance of creating eating habits that are affordable and can become comfortable long-term habits.
- Food fear headlines: What happens when a food that seems like a healthy choice gets called out in headlines as something that could increase risk of cancer or another chronic disease? Panic. Fear. Confusion. One example in 2021 involved a laboratory study with findings misinterpreted by the mediato suggest that eating peanuts might help cancer cells to spread. Laboratory research can provide important insights, but it needs to be interpreted cautiously and with a full view of actual results. For three questions you can ask when you encounter headlines about studies like this, check here for lessons from the peanut study hype.
- Anti-Inflammatory diets: Claims about what you “must” include and avoid for an anti-inflammatory diet grew to a feverish high in 2021. Indeed, inflammation is identified in the AICR Third Expert Report as one of the key “enabling characteristics” that contributes to all stages of cancer development. But over-emphasizing a specific spice, food or supplement found in laboratory studies to counter inflammation overlooks research on an overall dietary pattern that reduces chronic inflammation, and the even bigger picture on how those eating habits fit with other steps that play a critical role in reducing cancer risk.
After Cancer: “Now What?”
The number of people living with and beyond cancer continues to grow. And research is making strides in addressing crucial questions about how lifestyle choices can enhance the length and quality of life after a cancer diagnosis.
- Answers aren’t one-size-fits-all to questions about how regular physical activity and reaching and maintaining a healthy weight can support health after cancer. Presentations at the AICR 2021 Research Conference in the fall noted that “weight” needs to be considered in the context of what’s happening to lean muscle tissue and perhaps the fat’s location in the body. And physical activity holds great promise for many, including breast cancer survivors, but finding ways for individuals to create habits to be active in ways and places that work for them needs fine-tuning.
- Don’t ignore barriers. Address them. Research on how lifestyle choices support health and quality of life for people after cancer has raised attention to questions about how to build “successful” strategies into everyday life. Habit change poses challenges for everybody. And after cancer, people may face a variety of other barriers. They need their health-care providers to ask about those barriers and help them navigate around them.
- Lifestyle choices need to support overall health. Many people already have other health conditions at the time of their cancer diagnosis. Side effects of cancer or its treatment can lead to others. Combining indicators of heart health into a concept known as “heart age,” CDC analysis earlier this year categorized heart health of cancer survivors as comparable to that of people who had not had cancer who were six to eight years older. Eating to support health needs to look through a wide lens and in a close-up individually.
Looking Ahead to 2022? Think Big, Step Small
Think 85/15. Nutrient density is a central concept in the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. As you try to establish lifestyle habits that will work for you amidst headlines of ever-changing lists of must-eat and must-avoid foods, the goal of choosing 85% of what you eat from nutrient-rich foods is a great start.
- Research does not support the need for “perfect” eating (whatever that would be) to reduce risk of cancer and support health.
- Yet highly processed foods and drinks that are low in fiber and nutrients and high in added sugars and calories are available today at every turn. We each need to figure out ways to pick some to enjoy and walk away from others.
As you figure out choices to implement AICR’s New American Plate your way in a habit re-set, take advantage of the resources AICR has to help you. Maybe 2022 is your year to take the Healthy10 Challenge. Whatever steps you are ready to take, keep your eye on those that are based on sound evidence.