World Cancer Day: An ounce of prevention

Don't delay, start eating well today!

Posted Feb 04, 2010

"Cancer can be prevented too," the slogan for today's World Cancer Day, debunks the popular myth that while other diseases can be averted, cancer hits people like a bolt from the blue.

The International Union Against Cancer, organizers of World Cancer Day, reminds us that the risk of developing the disease can be significantly reduced through simple lifestyle measures like:

• Eating a healthy diet, exercising and maintaining a healthy body weight
• Stopping tobacco use and limiting alcohol consumption
• Protecting against cancer-causing infections, the main theme of World Cancer Day 2010 (Expert Report here.)

One look at the statistics tells us that many people in the affluent West don't heed health agencies' advice regarding diet and exercise. More than two-thirds of Americans carry excess baggage: 34.2% of all adults are overweight and 33.8% obese. A quarter of adults exercise, and daily sports classes in high schools have declined sharply over the years, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports.

European obesity rates, while slightly lower, are increasing steadily. Numbers range from 36% overweight and 10.3% obese in the Netherlands, the least-affected country, to 36.9% overweight and 24.5% obese in England, one of the worst-hit, International Association of Obesity Research data show.

Obesity largely results from sedentary Western lifestyles combined with high-calorie diets. Processed convenience foods - high in calories and low in nutritients - are ever-popular. Not only do they cause weight-gain, they also contain cancer-promoting sugars and fats. Meanwhile, natural plant foods - fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, low in calories and packed with cancer-protective nutrients - are widely shunned, despite governments' strenuous efforts to promote ‘five-a-day' programs.

Many of us know we should eat healthy plant foods and avoid empty calories; so why are we resistant to shifting to a healthier diet?

"People think cancer is a disease of old people - they say to themselves: I can wait until I'm 50 before I have to get serious about my health," explains Dr Rachel Thompson, Science Programme Manager (Nutrition) at the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). "But it's important to eat well from Day One and to acquire healthy eating habits that will serve us throughout our life."

Many people also imagine that convenience food is cheaper than home-cooked food; this idea has been hammered home in recent months by fast-food outlets falling over each to offer dirt-cheap "Recession Menus."

However, cooking with unprocessed, fresh ingredients and cutting back on meat is generally less expensive than buying even cheaply priced convenience food - especially when you take into account the wealth of nutrients your money will buy if you cook from scratch. Fresh, locally grown produce and basic whole-food staples will always offer a better nutritional bang for your buck than mass-produced and nutrient-depleted factory food. Not to mention that they taste better too!

Of course, it's not just up to each individual to clean up their act; governments, employers and the food industry must also do their bit. "Everyone needs to work together to prevent cancer," says Thompson at the WCRF. Among others, towns should create safe public spaces to encourage exercise; school and corporate canteens should serve healthy meals; and families should have easier access to fresh food and practical information on nutrition and health, she says. As a first step, "just telling people they can do something about cancer is important."

If you want to eat more healthily but don't know where to start, WCRF-UK offers a veritable treasure trove of free resources. Its website supplies delicious, healthy recipes as well as highly motivating, easy-to-download cookbooks and diverse advisory guides.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), part of the WCRF global network, also offers a wealth of hands-on advice, including detailed explanations of cancer-protective and cancer-risk-increasing foods, and more tasty recipes.

The best place for a newcomer is the WCRF-UK's 12-week ‘Healthy New You Plan' complete with goal-setting exercise, dinnerplate make-over, weight advice and meal- and exercise planners. I shouldn't say this - but this might save you a trip to the nutritionist's office!

You can visit Conner's website for more news, views and healthy recipes.

About the Author

Conner Middelmann Whitney

Conner Middelmann Whitney is a nutritionist, journalist, chef, and former cancer patient.

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