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July 14, 2020 | 6 minute read

Healthy Summer Eating: The Problem with Auto-Pilot

Do visions of garden bounty make it seem like summer is when your eating habits are at their healthiest? Although eating habits in the summer may be different than in the winter, they’re not necessarily healthier.

The problem often comes from eating on “auto pilot” – turning to less healthful choices more often than we realize, and not taking advantage of opportunities for healthy choices nearly as often as we think.

The key point: there are ways to enjoy summer eating that are both healthy and delicious. But we’re often on “auto-pilot,” making choices based on what’s promoted in commercials or what we remember from our childhood before we realized that day-to-day eating habits can reduce risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.

Grilling Season

Auto-pilot: “It’s all about the hot dogs and sausage.”

Fresh perspective: Even if an occasional hot dog or grilled sausage is a highlight of the summer for you, strong evidence shows that processed meats like these raise your risk of colorectal cancer. Since that’s the fourth most common cancer in the U.S., it makes sense to choose other options for grilling.

  • Grill chicken and throw on a few extra pieces to give you quick-and-easy additions to sandwiches or salads over the next 3-4 days. For an extra-delicious touch, marinate the chicken for an hour or more ahead in a simple mix of cider vinegar or lemon juice, oil, and the herb of your choice.
  • Experiment with grilling fish or shellfish. For fun, explore options like grilling in foil packets and using a grilling basket. But no special equipment is needed, so have fun experimenting with grilling seafood.
  • Think outside the box for burgers. Turkey and salmon burgers are tasty, quick and delicious. Use traditional condiments, or expand your variety further with toppings like fresh tomato and fruit salsa, sliced avocado or grilled mushrooms.
  • Savor the flavor of grilled vegetables, threaded into kebabs or marinated and tossed into a grilling basket. Round out the meal with choices that supply the protein you need. For example, include a salad with a hearty portion of black beans, garbanzo beans or lentils. Or add a cheese and tomato appetizer or salad.
  • Instead of making hot dogs, sausage or burgers the focus of the meal, give them a smaller role and let a delicious vegetable or whole grain dish take center stage on your plate. Enjoying unprocessed red meat in kebabs mixed with peppers, zucchini, mushrooms or other vegetables makes it easier to keep with the recommended limit of no more than 12-18 ounces of cooked red meat per week.

Hot and Thirsty

Auto-pilot: “Fill the cooler with soft drinks and beer, and bring out the lemonade.”

Fresh perspective: As it heats up, drinking plenty of liquids doesn’t just help you feel more comfortable, it’s essential. But even though drinks may go down fast and easy, the consequences of your drink choice can stick around longer than you’d like. Each 16-oz sugar-sweetened glass of soda or lemonade gives you as much sugar as 12 large marshmallows and drinks usually don’t satisfy your appetite as much as solid food.

This is not a swimsuit-oriented concern. Excess body fat and adult weight gain increases the risk of at least 12 different cancers, as well as other chronic diseases like diabetes. And the calories in a cooler full of beer are only part of the problem. Alcohol consumption, especially when it’s beyond the one to two a day limit of moderation, contributes to risk of at least six different cancers.

  • If making water your #1 beverage is a tough habit for you to establish, experiment with keeping a pitcher of water in the fridge with a tweak of flavor added. You could add a squirt of lemon or lime juice, or infuse your water with any fruit of choice. You can get special “infusion pitchers” with a perforated core in the center to put your fruit in. But no special equipment is needed; just place some berries, peaches or apple slices, mint, cucumber or produce of choice in a pitcher or large bottle of water. After a few hours, natural flavors will transform the water from plain to tasty.
  • Iced tea is a terrific summer cooler. If super-sweetened tea has been your go-to, don’t let tea’s health halo lead you to overlook the sugar content that’s comparable to regular soda. Gradually cut back on the sugar. Perhaps you’ll find this easier if you make home-brewed iced tea that combines regular black (or green) tea and a slightly fruity orange or other herbal tea.
  • No need to save iced coffee for a coffee shop treat. Brew some regular or decaf coffee to keep in a pitcher in the fridge and you can enjoy the treat at any time.
  • For a refreshing, bubbly drink, keep some club soda or seltzer in the fridge or cooler. Whether your preference is plain or flavored with unsweetened fruit essence, these can make a cool drink into an exploration of flavors.

Ice Cream Season

Auto-pilot: “Summer is the perfect time for ice cream. Go to the ice cream stand, eat a bowl at night in front of the TV or enjoy a midday cool-off.”

Fresh perspective: If ice cream is part of the joy of summer for you, there’s no need to give it up. But the huge array of flavors to explore and widespread availability – with 24-hour delivery to your door in some areas – make it easy to go overboard. And what’s now considered a medium portion would once have been considered gigantic.

  • Reshape your bowl of ice cream. Start with a moderate sized bowl of fruit and let a topping of a single scoop of ice cream drizzle the fruit with enticing flavor. Shift your focus to fruit as the essence of summer sweetness.
  • Ignore the coupons and 2-for-1 sales on ice cream gallons. Behavior science shows that when there’s more in the house, most people go through it faster. Despite what you tell yourself, if you’re an ice cream lover, stocking up will not last you extra-long.
  • At the local ice cream stand, bypass the portion distortion created by counting overflowing scoops. If going to the local ice cream stand is one of the joys of summer, choose the “kid-size” portion and slow down to savor the experience itself.

The Master Strategy

Identify your auto-pilot habits, think ahead about some alternatives that you would also enjoy and add them to a list in your phone or on your fridge. Train yourself to experiment with some of these other options, and see which ones you might like to choose more often. With repetition, you can train yourself to make these your healthy auto-pilot choices.

Healthy summer eating is not about deprivation, but consider rethinking the choices you’ve been making purely on auto-pilot. Select those choices that really do add to the joy of the season and try out some healthier options that may become your new summer habits.

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