Recently the Cancer Society held its annual ‘Daffodil Day’. Cancer affects 1 in 3 New Zealanders.

While we can never guarantee that a certain lifestyle will prevent cancer there are some nutritional approaches that may help you reduce your risk of cancer.

It is estimated that nutrition is linked to one third of all cancers in industrial countries.

In 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research report, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective was released. This report focused on the role of food, nutrition and physical activity.

One of the report’s top recommendations was to be as lean as possible without becoming underweight. There is convincing evidence that weight gain and obesity increase the risk of some cancers, especially bowel and breast cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular physical activity will help keep your risk lower.

The second recommendation is to be physically active every day for at least 30 minutes. There is strong evidence that physical activity protects against cancers, including bowel and breast cancer.

Of course physical activity is also a key factor that can help with maintaining a healthy weight. Any exercise is considered to be beneficial. As fitness levels improve the goal is to aim for longer duration, or alternatively increase the intensity of the exercise.

Another recommendation was to decrease the consumption of energy dense foods and to avoid sugar-rich drinks. These foods typically have a low nutrient value, contributing little in the way of essential nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.

Foods like biscuits, chocolates, chips and fast foods are all energy dense. These foods can easily lead to weight gain which, in turn, can lead to a higher risk of developing cancer.

Evidence shows that vegetables, fruits and other foods containing dietary fibre (such as wholegrains and pulses) may protect against a range of cancers including mouth, stomach and bowel cancer. They also help to protect against weight gain and obesity.

Limiting your intake of red meat and processed meats is also recommended. The report recommends an intake of less than 500 grams cooked (700-750 grams raw) red meat each week. In general, based on information from the 1997 National Nutrition Survey and industry consumption figures for New Zealand, it appears that our red meat intake is already below this recommended intake.

Recently concern was highlighted regarding the safety of processed meats in the diet. The World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRFI) released the statement that children who eat smoked, salted or cured meats can develop a greater risk of bowel cancer later in life. The WCRFI says a diet high in processed and red meat is the top risk factor for developing bowel cancer. Some estimates suggest that thousands of cancer cases could be prevented if everyone limited their intake of processed meat to 70 grams a week. That is the equivalent of only three rashers of bacon. Processed meat in this report includes ham, bacon, pastrami and salami, as well as hot dogs and some sausages.

So as parents what can we do if our children have a liking for ham or salami sandwiches (like mine do!). Like all things with diet variety is often a key factor. It is important to encourage a variety of foods as part of a balanced diet, and this goes for the school lunch box as well. Try to include a variety of fillings for the sandwiches or rolls such as chicken, lean meat, fish, eggs, low fat cheese or hummus.

Other recommendations in the report included limiting alcohol to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.

Foods with a high salt content should also be limited as it is probable that a high salt intake causes stomach cancer.

Aiming to get your nutrition from whole foods rather than nutritional supplements was also recommended as research shows that high-dose nutrient supplements can affect our risk of cancer.

If you want to lower your risk of cancer try to base your diet around lots of fruit and vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals as this usually helps with weight management. Limit your intake of fatty and sugary foods which are also often the foods that are highly processed and therefore higher in salt as well.

Aim to have some non-red meat meals each week. Choose fish (tinned or fresh) or chicken without the skin, or introduce some legumes (dried beans and lentils) into your meals – a good alternative source of protein. When looking at your plate still aim to have only a quarter of your plate with the protein portion, have half your plate with a variety of vegetables, on the remaining quarter have some carbohydrate such as rice, pasta or potato.

Including physical activity on a regular basis for yourself and your family members is really important. To help achieve this goal it is really important to look for an activity you really enjoy so you are more likely to include it as part of your normal routine.


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Fiona Boyle is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She runs a private practice and gives nutrition advice to individuals and families to help meet their health needs and personal goals.

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