Everyone has a why. A reason behind why they do what they do. The thing that makes their heart beat a little faster and drives them to keep pushing deeper. For me, my why is to join a fight- not against a person or an institution- but rather through food against a disease that has taken far too many lives and attempted to steal far too much joy. Cancer.
Unfortunately, most people today have either been impacted themselves or know someone who has been impacted by cancer. For me, it was my aunt. Growing up I watched her publicly fight the battle against breast cancer when it was taboo to even talk about breast cancer, because knowledge is power. Her passion was to continue to fight and continue to live, refusing to be defined by her diagnosis.
It was through her battle that I was first introduced to the idea of using nutrition in conjunction with modern medicine as part of the cancer treatment, and played a large role in why I became a dietitian. However it wasn’t until my dietetics courses that I realized just how profound of an impact food has on cancer risk and I quickly became fascinated. Many times in the nutrition world, bold claims are thrown around like confetti, often times backed by little or no science. However in the cancer field, there is extremely sound evidence behind the connection of food and cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, more than 30% of the most prevalent cancers could be prevented through diet and exercise alone. THIRTY PERCENT. You mean to tell me that by helping people understand nutrition and take a part of their treatment into their own hands could play a role in survivorship? Game on, sign me up. How could this be, you ask? Pull up a chair, let’s have a quick nutrition chat….
If you know me personally you have likely heard me talk about phytochemicals and their cancer fighting potential … mostly because they are so dang amazing and deserve all the attention they receive! Phytochemicals are the cancer fighting compounds found in plants that give them their unique colors and smells, intended to enhance their survival in the outside plant world. In humans, they go to work in our bodies at a cellular level to serve the same purpose of enhancing our survival. Every plant has a different combination of phytochemicals, all of which interact in unique ways and contribute different cancer (and other disease) protective properties. By eating an array of plant-based foods, you are maximizing your phytochemical intake, thus maximizing your cancer fighting potential. Ugh that’s so freakin cool. The saying “eat the rainbow” couldn’t be more true.
So it makes sense that it is recommended to eat a “plant-based” diet for cancer protective properties because as a result you’re getting tons of phytochemicals. Fear not omnivores, that is not synonymous with vegetarian or vegan, it simply implies that a large component of what you eat should be plants- I’m looking at you fruits, veggies, whole grains and beans. It is also recommended to be physically active at least 30 minutes a day to help regulate hormone levels, drink alcohol in moderation (1/day for women and 2/day for men) and limit red and processed meats*.
As with anything with nutrition, it is important to remember that this is referring to eating patterns, not some rendezvous with food here and there. Just as eating one salad won’t provide unicorn-like magic, eating steak won’t kill you. And there are still areas of cancer research that we have yet to discover, like why someone who follows all of the lifestyle evidence-based guidelines still somehow gets diagnosed with cancer. If you are a cancer survivor and interested in taking charge of a part of your treatment, I would most definitely recommend finding an oncology RD in your area to get started!
May this month provide awareness but may it also stand as a reminder. A reminder of the hope in finding a cure and living in a cancer free world. A reminder that miracles happen everyday. A reminder to celebrate life.
Knowledge is power: For more information on food and cancer, visit www.aicr.org