On Nutrition

Cancer isn’t a topic anyone wants to think about, but it’s one we’re more likely to contemplate as we cruise toward and through “middle age.” Although cancer can happen at any age, our risk increases with age — about 25% of new cancer cases are diagnosed between the ages of 65 and 74. While your age and genes determine some of your risk for developing cancer, research shows that our genes’ interaction with our environment — including the food we eat — also matters.

A recent survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) examined what members of Generation X — currently age 39 to 54 — believe about the role of diet and lifestyle in cancer prevention, and how this affects their food choices. The majority — six in 10 respondents — thought diet and lifestyle play some role, while one-third think these factors play a big role. However, most felt lifestyle matters more for preventing heart disease and type 2 diabetes than it does for cancer.

What affects disease risk?

The surveyed GenXers believe two of the top difference-makers are regular, sustained physical activity and a diet high in fruits and vegetables. That’s absolutely accurate, yet Kris Sollid, R.D., senior director of nutrition communications at the IFIC Foundation, said that some of the respondents’ other assumptions miss the mark.

“For example, eating a healthful diet, rich in whole-grain foods, can contribute to reducing our risks of heart disease, certain types of cancer and type 2 diabetes,” she said. “Yet, our survey finds that fewer than half of GenXers think that eating a diet rich in whole grains would reduce someone’s risk of developing heart disease [49%], cancer [45%] or type 2 diabetes [40%].”

She also said the survey illustrates a potential misperception among GenXers about top risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes. “Sugar itself is not an independent risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes, yet more Gen Xers in our survey believe that reducing sugar consumption [83%] would lower someone’s risk for developing type 2 diabetes than lowering body weight [73%] and getting regular physical activity [68%].”

How food beliefs affect food choices

Nearly half of all GenXers surveyed said that whether a food or beverage might reduce their risk of developing cancer plays a role in their purchase decisions — but so does reducing risk of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases. More than half of GenXers who prioritize cancer prevention say they eat a much different diet than they did 10 years ago, although 75% of participants say that their diet is generally better than it was a decade ago.

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A cancer-preventive diet is rich in nutrients from food. In fact, the AICR recommends that we don’t use supplements to try to protect against cancer, in part because our bodies absorb nutrients in their complete food “packages” better than in isolated nutrients found in supplements. To get these nutrients, we need to eat more plant foods, but what “more plants” means can be a matter of some confusion.

“Since there is no formal definition for ‘plant-based diet,’ it can be challenging to understand how people define this eating pattern,” Sollid said. For example, 35% of GenXers surveyed believe a plant-based diet is one that emphasizes minimally processed foods that come from plants, with limited consumption of animal meat, eggs and dairy; 32% believe a plant-based diet to be a vegan diet in which you avoid all animal products, including eggs and dairy.

“Most people prefer to think in a clear-cut way, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to our health or eating habits,” Sollid said. “Most people [including GenXers] don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. We should be encouraged to think ‘plants first,’ but that doesn’t have to mean plants only. You can have your steak and eat it too, even on a plant-based diet.”

What a plant-based plate looks like

AICR suggests aiming to fill two-thirds of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. That includes at least five servings a day of vegetables and fruits, especially colorful varieties. Eating a variety of plant foods offers your body’s cells a broad mix of vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals, which are natural compounds that may help protect cells from damage that leads to cancer.

What about the other third of your plate? You can fill it with animal protein (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and dairy) if you choose, but make your choices healthful ones. Choose lean meats, and don’t let them become charred or burnt during cooking. While you’re eating more plant foods, here’s what to eat less of:

  • Processed meats, which often contain preservatives and other substances that may promote cancer.
  • Highly processed foods and beverages with added salt, sugar or fat. These tend to be lower in nutrients, fiber and water while being higher in calories.
  • Refined carbohydrates (white bread, white-flour pasta and white rice). These foods are low in fiber and nutrients.
  • Alcohol, which increases the risk of certain cancers, including breast and colorectal cancer. If you imbibe, don’t exceed two drinks a day for men, one drink a day for women.

A final thought

Interestingly, the survey results suggest that people with lower incomes have poorer health, are less familiar with plant-based diets, are less likely to believe that food choices can affect cancer risk, and subsequently are less likely to choose foods based on their cancer-preventive properties. Does higher income make it easier to stay healthy, and people who are already healthy find it easier to believe that their personal actions and behaviors make a difference? That’s an important question.