April 06, 2022
3 min read
The foods we eat can affect our risk for developing certain types of cancer. Obesity can increase the risk for some cancers, meaning that a varied diet of nutritious foods may help prevent cancer.
It is estimated that about 30% of the risk for cancer can be attributed to diet, which is just below tobacco smoke and far, far above any other known risk factor.
As health care providers, helping patients achieve and maintain a healthy weight is important to reduce the risk for cancer and other chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Some of the most important cancers, including those of the breast (in women past menopause), colon and rectum, endometrium, esophagus, pancreas, liver and kidney, are classified as obesity-associated cancers by WHO. Excess weight is associated with increased insulin levels, and increased body fat causes the body to make and circulate more estrogen — both hormones that can stimulate cancer growth.
Unfortunately, there is considerable misinformation out there when it comes to nutrition. As health care providers, it is our privilege and responsibility to educate patients about the correlation between nutrition and cancer and identify ways that patients can decrease their risk. Here are some topics to hit when starting the conversation with your patients:
Reducing cancer risk through nutrition
The best healthy eating pattern patients can aim for is eating natural, unprocessed foods to avoid obesity and type 2 diabetes. In addition, don’t eat constantly. The body needs some time to digest and use the energy (calories) contained in the food. If you are always eating, you are always encouraging your body to store those calories. Proper nutrition is a balance between feeding and fasting (anytime you are not eating). That is why the first meal of the day is the “break-fast” meal.
Types of foods that can increase the risk for cancer
Carcinogenic foods include processed meats, alcohol, red meat, salted fish, barbecued meats and even hot beverages above 149°F, or 60°C (tea and coffees are usually served at about 160-185°F, or 71-85°C).
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ diet
There is no evidence that reducing dietary fat can reduce obesity better than other diets (DASH, Mediterranean, low-carb, etc.). Instead of relying on a specific diet, people should aim to avoid obesity, which can be done with a variety of diets. The basics of good diets are not controversial and are generally considered true. Eat unprocessed, whole foods in their natural state. Don’t eat too much sugar. Avoid junk foods and fast foods.
Beware of ‘cancer-fighting foods’
There are few foods that prevent cancer. Instead of focusing on specific foods, people should strive to avoid risk factors of cancer such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Four ways patients can reduce cancer risk
Daily habits like diet and exercise can affect your patients’ risks for cancer. Research supports that poor diet and not being active are key factors that can increase a person’s cancer risk. The good news is that you can encourage patients to reduce their cancer risk through everyday habits. Besides quitting smoking, here are the most important steps patients can take:
- Get to and stay at a healthy weight throughout life.
- Be physically active on a regular basis.
- Follow a healthy eating pattern at all ages.
- Avoid or limit alcohol.
Leveraging available provider resources
In addition to the aforementioned topics to discuss with patients, there are a variety of resources to help you get started. The Obesity Medicine Association (OMA) has a spectrum of tools and resources to help providers prevent and treat obesity in patients. OMA’s Nutrition Recommendations For Obesity Management supports providers in creating individualized prescriptions for patients, while the 2021 Obesity Algorithm is an essential tool for any practice. It contains updated information on the mechanisms, evaluation and treatment of obesity, including why obesity is a disease, how obesity causes the most common metabolic diseases encountered in clinical practice, and how to treat obesity to reduce disease risk.
Our knowledge of COVID-19 is always evolving, especially as it relates to chronic diseases. To learn the latest from the best in obesity treatment, join the Obesity Medicine Association’s upcoming spring conference, offered both in-person in Atlanta and virtually. OMA also offers a variety of digital tools, webinars and educational resources for providers to help keep patients healthy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. To learn more about OMA or to become a member, visit https://obesitymedicine.org/join.
American Cancer Society. Diet and physical activity: What’s the cancer connection? https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/diet-and-physical-activity.html. Accessed March 25, 2022.