There’s a reason doctors tell you to lay off the sugar, eat more veggies and get your butt off the sofa — because a healthy diet and exercise will help prevent chronic illness like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
And there’s science behind it, much of it leading back to one of America’s heaviest issues: weight. It turns out that your lifestyle choices, what you put in your plate and how often you get moving, really does matter in how your body fights illness.
“All these chronic diseases are linked to lifestyle. All the doctors are saying the same thing. Yet, people don’t do it,” said Dr. Grace Wang, an oncologist at Baptist Health’s Miami Cancer Institute. She said she tries to teach patients about smarter choices to improve health.
“One of the main things is we want to prevent obesity,” Wang said. “At the latest ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) meeting, they were telling us that obesity may be the new tobacco. Obesity is the next most preventable lifestyle change that can decrease your risk of cancer.”
According to ASCO, obesity is related to more than 40,000 cancer diagnoses each year.
The American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research’s guidelines for cancer prevention include maintaining a healthy body weight, avoiding alcohol and tobacco and eating a variety of fruits and veggies.
“Basically, the American diet sucks,” said Lesley Klein, a dietician and medical oncology nutrition specialist at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Society. “The No.1 killer is heart disease, and the second is cancer — and they’ve both been linked with our diet.”
The American Institute for Cancer Research advocates the New American Plate — two-thirds plant food, and one-third animal.
“The reason is because we know that inflammation is an intricate component to lots of chronic conditions, including diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer,” Klein said. “And what causes inflammation most is processed, sugary food and animal protein.”
Some people think that because sugar causes inflammation and it’s a carbohydrate, all carbs must be bad, Klein said, but that’s not true. “You need carbs because that’s the preferred source of energy for your body,” she said. “It’s about making better choices more often.”
Klein recommends an anti-inflammatory meal plan to patients. That means five to six servings of non-starchy vegetables like carrots, string beans, broccoli and cauliflower per day. The fruit should make up a smaller piece of the pie, up to three servings a day, because they contain more sugar. For starchy vegetables, like butternut squash, sweet potatoes, plantains and corn —because the starch is digested into sugar — eat no more than two servings a day, Klein said.
When it comes to grains, steer away from white breads and pasta, and have up to two servings a day of whole grains like steel cut oats, quinoa, brown rice and multigrain breads. Legumes like beans and lentils offer the building blocks of protein without the inflammation of animal protein.
Portion control, moderation and paying attention to how you eat are key, Wang said.
“I don’t think we should tell people they can’t have any sugar. I think we should not go to extremes,” she said. “But if you’re going to have sugar, have it at the end of the meal so less will be absorbed.”
Klein said it’s best not to eat carbs alone, because the inflammation comes from the spike in your blood sugar. “If you eat just the carb, your sugar spikes, then the insulin comes in, then your sugar drops. It’s lots of ups and downs,” she said.
Aim to eat a variety of colors every day, Klein said. “I call it my rainbow,” she said. “I tell patients food has different colors because of the nutrients in them.”
Blue and purple foods like blueberries, blackberries, eggplant, purple onions, grapes and plums have antioxidants to help fight against cancer, are anti-inflammatory and are good for cognition. Red foods like kidney beans, apples, cherries, tomatoes and radishes have antioxidants that can help fight against cancer, are anti-inflammatory and are great for the immune system.
“When you look at guidelines for cancer prevention, it’s really about getting down to that ideal body weight, eating less animal protein and more plant foods,” Klein said.
Organic foods are preferable, but can get expensive, so Klein offers these guidelines — buy organic animal proteins, and follow the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen (see box) — if you are on a budget.
Avoid nitrates, which have been linked to digestive cancers, Klein said. Stay away from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and processed foods. Wang said to watch how you grill foods, because charring fatty foods over charcoal can cause carcinogens that contribute to cancer.
When it comes to cocktail hour, practice moderation, Wang said. “Alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer, the most common cancer in women,” she said. The American Cancer Society advises no more than one drink a day for women, and two for men.
If you want to feel better and look better, increasing physical activity offers a multitude of benefits, Wang said. “Exercise decreases estrogen levels, decreases inflammation and improves the immune system. It lowers the risk of diabetes, hypertension, decreases triglycerides — the bad cholesterol, helps you sleep, helps with anxiety and is a mild antidepressant.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, people who exercise regularly have to a 40 to 50 percent lower risk of colon cancer. Women who exercise for more than three hours a week have a 30 to 40 percent lower risk of breast cancer. Active women have a 38 to 48 percent reduced risk of uterine cancer.
Dawn Broksch, director of the Memorial Rehabilitation Institute at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, said there are no magic exercises that will prevent cancer, but people looking to improve health should use cardiovascular exercises like the treadmill, ellipitical machine, walking, running or swimming.
“If they are just starting out, people may be able to do just 10 minutes of an aerobic exercise,” Broksch said. “If they can do it five to six days a week, that would be great. The more conditioned they become, and the harder you can work at the exercise, the less frequently you have to do it, because you’re getting more of a benefit from the exercise itself.”
Research shows it is most beneficial to get up to your target heart rate three to five days a week, she said.
Wang said if you are overweight, start with walking. Think slow and steady. “People try to lose weight with exercise, but I think it’s mostly the healthy eating that will get them to lose weight, especially if they are obese,” Wang said.
Strength training, using weights, resistance bands or exercise balls, helps make bones and muscles stronger, Broksch said. “Start slow, because you can hurt yourself if you do too much weight too quickly.”
Wang said it’s easy for people to find an excuse not to exercise. Overcome the barriers, she said. If time is tight, schedule your exercises. Stay motivated by exercising with a friend. Swap baby-sitting duties with another parent if you need someone to watch the kids. If you find exercise is boring, find something active and fun.
“It’s really adapting that healthy lifestyle. That’s the key to preventing any type of disease,” Broksch said.
When to go organic
If you want to incorporate organic produce into your diet, here’s a good place to start. Here are the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen, the produce with the highest amounts of pesticides, and Clean 15, which has the lowest.
Celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale/collard greens, potatoes and imported grapes.
Onions, avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, mangoes, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potato and honeydew melon.