Healthy eating habits lower risk of cancer. Many studies confirm that a healthy pattern of eating and drinking is associated with a lower risk of cancer as well as reducing the risk of weight gain. But for many people, there is not enough clarity on what food choices really count as healthy eating for reducing cancer risk. A new study comparing different dietary recommendations concludes that a score based on following the AICR Recommendations provides a stronger link to lower cancer risk than scores based on general definitions of healthy eating.
The latest report from the American Institute for Cancer Research provides an updated set of recommendations based on analysis of today’s best evidence. These recommendations fall into several categories:
● Protective foods: Getting enough of foods that provide dietary fiber, nutrients and natural plant compounds may prevent and slow the process of cancer development.
● Foods that add risk: Limiting foods that studies suggest may promote carcinogen activation, DNA damage or pro-cancer cell signaling.
● Foods that make it harder to maintain a healthy weight: Limiting foods that make it harder to avoid unhealthy gain in weight and waist, since excess body fat raises risk of at least 12 forms of cancer.
● Separate-but-related choices: Physical activity is more than another part of the weight control equation, as more and more studies support direct cancer-protective effects of moving every day. Supplements are called out in the AICR Recommendations as a choice that does not offer cancer protection for most people.
Each Step Closer Helps
In a study that scored French middle-aged adults for how closely their diet and lifestyle matched AICR Recommendations, after six years, those with the highest scores had 34% fewer cancers diagnosed than those with the lowest scores. Out of eight possible points (if someone met all recommendations), the top group scored from about six to eight points. A perfect score was not needed to make a difference.
For each additional recommendation met, the overall cancer risk was reduced 12%. Even those simply above the group average for meeting AICR recommendations had significantly less cancer than those with lowest scores.
Aim for the Package
For most of us, following some recommendations comes more easily than others. For some, limiting red and processed meat is the most challenging, while for someone else limiting sweets, soft drinks or alcohol or changing a sedentary lifestyle are the toughest to break.
You may be tempted to focus your efforts on what comes most easily. For example, if you already enjoy vegetables every day, perhaps you are thinking of bypassing the need to address creeping weight gain or love of bacon by increasing your veggies intake instead. But in this study, there were no bonus points for above par pursuit of one recommendation to make up for bad habits elsewhere.
In fact, researchers even did an additional analysis to see whether points for any single recommendation were the driving force behind lower cancer risk. But evidence remained consistent for each step closer to the entire “package” of recommendations. Since each strategy in the package works in a slightly different way to protect against cancer, an outstanding job in one area is likely not as helpful as doing a “good” job on as many recommendations as you can.
Avoid the Micro-Perspective
Cancer-protective eating is not simply about meeting nutrient needs or loading up on foods promoted as high in antioxidants. That could be why studies with supplements have come up short for cancer prevention.
● High levels of individual nutrients or phytochemicals can’t “undo” the risk posed by too much sitting, weight gain, alcohol or processed meat.
● Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dried beans, and nuts provide thousands of natural plant compounds and different forms of dietary fiber that may work together with the vitamins and minerals they contain to provide cancer-protective effects.
● Some people fear that if they are not eating seven to ten servings of fruits and vegetables every day, that’s “not enough” to protect them. Actually, five or more standard servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruits daily (a total of 2 1/2 cups, though more when this includes raw leafy greens) is enough to meet the recommendations to reduce cancer risk, and that’s all it took to earn a top score in this French study. Eating more may provide heart-health and other benefits, but it’s not a bottom-line for lower cancer risk.
Many Paths to Healthy Eating
So why didn’t other healthy eating habits such as Mediterranean diet scores show as strong a link to lower cancer risk in this French study? The other scores took a broader focus on healthy eating. So, points for choices that are clearly linked with lower cancer risk could get diluted by points for choices so far known to be unrelated to incidence of cancer. For example, some scores included points based on types of dietary fat, which is part of heart-healthy eating, but is not currently linked to cancer risk.
A key take-home message from this study in France is that for lower cancer risk, make sure your healthy eating goals include the AICR Recommendations as a vital part of their foundation.