With increasing news about the way that our environment and genetics can influence our risk of various diseases, many of us wonder about the real impact of lifestyle changes on our cancer risk and our overall health. The reality is that you have more control over your health than you might think. Scientific studies support that a healthy lifestyle—one that is smoke-free and includes exercise and healthy eating to maintain ideal weight—improves longevity.
If the thought of making these lifestyle changes is daunting, remember: you don’t have to leap in all at once; small steps will also make a big difference. One way to approach the process of lifestyle change is to consider the Japanese philosophy of kaizen (“improvement”), which embraces taking small steps toward big changes.
Some of the most powerful small steps you can take toward a healthier lifestyle and disease prevention involve changes to your diet and eating patterns. But with the tremendous amount of information available about what and what not to eat, deciding how to modify your diet can be confusing. To put it all in perspective, consider these healthy-eating priorities for cancer prevention and overall good health:
- Eat seven to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables per day. Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other compounds that work together to protect your body from many cancers. They are also low in calories, so when you eat the recommended quantity, you may eat fewer calories overall. In addition to fighting cancer, you might lose weight!
- Eat more whole grains. Whole grains contain higher amounts of fiber, which act as a broom in the gastrointestinal tract, sweeping away environmental containments that are in our food and water. Fiber slows down digestion and produces less of an insulin response, thereby decreasing overall inflammation in the body. Fiber also makes you feel satiated longer, helping you eat less.
- Reduce your intake of red and processed meats. Eat less than 12 ounces per week of beef, pork, and lamb. Eliminate processed meats such as hot dogs, lunchmeats, and bacon as much as possible. The sodium and the additives in these meats are undesirable in a healthy diet, and the saturated fat content is usually higher and contributes to heart disease.
- Limit alcohol. To decrease cancer risk and help maintain a healthy weight, women should have no more than one drink per day, men two. A drink is equal to 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, or 12 ounces of beer.
- Consume more vegetable sources of protein. Try to eat three to seven meals per week that contain vegetarian protein choices such as beans, lentils, soy, and nuts. These foods have less contamination and more fiber than animal proteins and are either free of or very low in saturated fat, so they’re heart-healthy as well.
- Eat less refined sugar. The more refined sugar in our diet, the more of an insulin response our bodies have. Higher insulin levels are associated with disease-promoting inflammation in the body. Limit refined sugar to less than 25 grams per day.
Now that you are aware of the priorities for a healthy diet, the challenge is to make changes to your eating habits that will last. If it seems overwhelming, remember that every change in life begins with a single step. Taking one small step toward a healthier lifestyle today can help you reap big rewards tomorrow.
Why advocate small steps instead of a major overhaul? Because drastic change leads to failure 75 percent of the time. Kaizen, a concept built on the premise of small steps, shows that small changes are doable, not daunting. In fact, small steps are proven to help people achieve success with sustainable change.
Kaizen works because it breaks down the brain’s resistance to change and decreases the fear that change is associated with the perception of deprivation or discomfort. Kaizen’s small steps do not register any significant change that we view as a threat, so when small steps are taken, our fear is bypassed. The brain becomes engaged in logical and creative thinking, which leads to the achievement of our goals. After practicing a small step for 30 days, the behavior becomes a habit. Sticking to the small-steps concept will give you more confidence and allow you to move on to bigger goals toward healthier eating, which will further improve your health. For example, eating one extra piece of fruit per day will account for 365 pieces in one year. That’s a lot more fiber and antioxidants than before!
Work out a strategy for eating healthier and take control of your health. Start with just two small steps at a time to improve your eating. After 30 days of practice, move on to two more. If you find that you are not successful with those two steps, choose smaller steps. Sometimes you may need to ask yourself questions to find a different route to be successful. The small steps may seem trivial at first, but you will get there by seeking out ways to continually improve your eating. When you veer off track and swap your lunch salad for a burger, remember the old Japanese proverb: Fall down seven times, get up eight.
Simple Steps Toward Healthy Eating
- Add 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed to yogurt, cereal, or rice per day.
- Ask for double tomatoes when ordering a sandwich.
- When dining out and eating bread before your meal, ask for double vegetables and hold the potatoes.
- Add canned beans instead of animal protein to a salad for lunch once or twice a week.
- Choose a vegetarian pasta meal once per week instead of one high in meat and cheese.
- Take only two bites of dessert instead of eating a whole serving.
- Limit alcohol intake to the weekend only.
Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE, is director of Nutrition for California Health & Longevity Institute, located within Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village (www.chli.com). With an extensive clinical education and more than 25 years of experience in private practice, Lambert has wide-ranging experience in clinical nutrition and the development of individualized dietary plans.
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