Eating a common sense diet can ward off illness
MIDDLEBURY — When we talk about cancer, we often speak of the genetic and environmental causes.
But according to Nicole Rohrig, nutritionist at Porter Medical Center in Middlebury, lifestyle has a role to play, too.
While cancer treatment plans vary widely depending on the type and stage of the disease, Rohrig said there are certain habits that can help reduce cancer risks.
The most basic recommendation, said Rohrig, is to lead a healthy lifestyle, including a nutritious diet and regular physical activity. This, she said, makes a major difference.
“Being overweight or obese does put you at a higher risk of cancer,” she said. “It’s estimated that a third of cancer deaths are linked to obesity.”
She said as far as exercise goes, 30 minutes each day is ideal, but every little bit of activity helps.
“Some is better than none, and more is better than some,” she said.
And there are also simple nutritional guidelines that can help people as they move toward a healthy diet.
She recommends a strong emphasis on plant foods of many varieties in the diet — at least two and a half cups of vegetables a day.
“Go for the rainbow, so you’re getting all the nutrients,” said Rohrig.
Vegetables are also high in fiber, which she said is important for clearing out the gastrointestinal system. Rohrig said fiber helps move toxins out of the body, which in turn can help lower the risk of gastro-intestinal cancers. Whole grains and fruits are also good sources of fiber.
For this reason, Rohrig said she recommends whole fruit rather than fruit juices.
“I always promote the whole fruit, because you’re going to get the fiber with it,” she said. “Juices are going to be more calorically dense.”
And she said vitamins E and C, found in many fruits vegetables, could be especially important, since they act as antioxidants. Antioxidants are thought to eliminate free radicals in the body, which can damage the cells and contribute to the development of cancer.
Rohrig said antioxidants and phytochemicals (a broad group of chemicals that occur in plants) are beneficial chemicals that are found in fruits, vegetables and some grains and legumes.
While there is little evidence that these chemicals in isolation have anti-cancer effects, it is thought that when naturally occurring in plants, the combinations of chemicals may help fight cancer.
Rohrig said spices have particularly high levels of antioxidants — cloves, oregano, ginger, cinnamon and turmeric have the highest levels.
So for all those cooks looking to add a spark to their food, she said, “Spice away!”
Rohrig said red meat should be an indulgence, not a three-times-a-day option — studies have shown too much meat to be a factor in cancer rates.
“Adding in three ounces of red meat per day increases your cancer risk by 10 percent,” she said.
Nitrates, found in some processed meat like sausage, bacon, hot dogs and ham, also act as carcinogens. Rohrig said meat purchases should be nitrate-free whenever possible.
And those who like their burgers well done could also be adding to their cancer risk — she said charred red meat produces carcinogenic compounds that charred vegetables, for example, do not.
In this case, Rohrig recommended cooking meat at a lower temperature by baking, sautéing, boiling, or barbecuing “low and slow.”
But those who have to get their well-done hamburgers in every once in a while shouldn’t be too concerned, she said — “I would just limit it.”
Rohrig said nutrition is a very complicated area of study, and that scientists are making new discoveries all the time. High-salt diets are being scrutinized, as is the possibility that probiotics may have anti-cancer properties. She said soy has been examined as both a carcinogen and a product that fights cancer, but again, there’s not a conclusive answer.
Still, the simple rules of thumb hold true, and that’s what Rohrig said she recommends.
“It’s important to limit processed foods, and to eat as whole and as fresh as possible,” she said
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