Simple Steps for Better Health

Smart food choices and a commitment to exercise will do your body—and your spirit—good.

by Laurie Wertich 7/2019

What we eat throughout our lives, how active we are, and our genetic makeup—all affect our overall health. Cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases occur more frequently as we age. Your risk of developing these debilitating conditions can be reduced with a healthy lifestyle. The American Cancer Society reports that mortality from cancer is equally associated with tobacco as it is with a poor diet and a lack of exercise. Of course we know that smoking isn’t healthy, but many of us are unaware of the equally important role of nutrition and physical activity. Together these factors result inas much as 80 percent of all cancers.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, eating healthfully becomes even more important. Good nutrition provides a practical and useful way to participate in your own recovery and enhances your natural resilience. In addition, it is empowering to know that you are doing all you can to improve your health.

Simple Changes Make a Difference

If you are overwhelmed by the idea of completely changing your lifestyle, keep in mind that there are some pretty simple, positive changes you can make immediately.

  • Decide to increase your physical activity (walking, swimming, cycling, yoga) with a goal of being active at least 45 minutes every day. If you are undergoing treatment and fatigue is an issue, first ensure that you are adequately hydrated, as dehydration is a frequent cause of fatigue. Stretch, walk, or try yoga or tai chi to maintain your agility and to help you breathe deeply. Deep breathing helps detoxify and balance the pH levels in your blood.
  • Increase the amount of colorful and aromatic fruits and vegetables you eat by adding an additional serving of these healthful foods to your diet every day. A serving might consist of a handful of blueberries atop your breakfast cereal or yogurt, a glass of fresh fruit or vegetable juice, or a delicious bowl of vegetable soup. Aim for eight to 10 servings per day.

Color Counts

As you add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, remember that some choices will give you more nutritional bang for your buck. The next time you visit the produce aisle, pay close attention to the more colorful choices, which can be especially full of valuable nutrients. Vegetables, beans, and fruit are rich sources of protective chemicals, sometimes called phyto (from the Greek word for plant) chemicals or botanical factors. These colored chemicals protect plants from predators as well as help trap light for photosynthesis. When we eat plants that contain these beneficial phytochemicals, we also benefit. They are antioxidant, anti-proliferative, and anti-carcinogenic. Examples of plant foods that are rich sources of these protective elements include:

  • Tomatoes (lycopene)
  • Apricots (lycopene)
  • Garlic (sulforaphanes)
  • Broccoli (indoles)
  • Curry (cur cumin)
  • Tea (epigallocatechin gallate [EGCG])
  • Cocoa (EGCG)
  • Red grapes (resveratrol)
  • Blueberries (anthocyanins)
  • Soybeans (isoflavones)

Get Creative

Food is appealing for many different reasons. We usually choose foods that taste and look good and are associated with pleasant experiences. Preparing appealing meals that tempt your palate may require some creativity during cancer treatment. Seeking out new flavors, using fresh herb garnishes, and setting the table in an attractive way—all may help whet your appetite. Although there are no magic-bullet herbs or nutrients, by making a conscious effort to add healthful foods to your diet you are taking a proactive step toward health and wellness. Incorporating fresh, whole foods and regular exercise into your life is easier than you might think, and the rewards are substantial.

a Healthy Meal Plan

Try substituting healthy options for your standard fare and see what a difference healthful eating can make.

Breakfast Instead of a donut, have a bowl of whole-grain cereal topped with fresh berries and nonfat milk or soy milk.

Snack Instead of candy, choose an orange or other colorful fruit.

Lunch Instead of a cheeseburger, choose a large, colorful salad topped with beans, pine nuts, or avocado. Add 2 to 3 ounces of lean chicken, sardines, salmon, or goat cheese for protein.

Snack Instead of potato chips, choose a small handful of walnuts, pecans, pistachio, or other tree nuts (including one Brazil nut three times a week for selenium).

Dinner Instead of barbecued ribs, choose broiled salmon, broccoli, and brown rice. For dessert, try fresh sliced peaches marinated in lemon juice and topped with pomegranate seeds.

Additional ideas:

  • Add pine nuts or sliced almonds to the salad.
  • Use tomato paste in a sauce for pasta. Lycopene is absorbed best from cooked tomatoes that include olive oil, as it is a fat-soluble carotenoid.
  • Sprinkle fresh herbs on your salads and on meat and fish before cooking. (Rosemary, oregano, thyme, and other culinary herbs are very rich in antioxidants and beneficial phytochemicals).

The Three A’s

When you make the effort and choose food that is fresh, well prepared, and attractively presented, chances are you are also selecting dishes that provide you with the three A’s of cancer prevention: antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and anti-carcinogens.
Antioxidants are found in foods that provide nutrients to protect DNA from oxidative damage by reactive oxygen species (such as free radicals). Examples include:

  • Foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus, strawberries, kiwi fruit, and bell peppers
  • Foods rich in vitamin E, such as nuts, seeds, egg yolk, and wheat germ
  • Fruits and vegetables with a high Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) score, such as açai and goji berries, pomegranates, blueberries, and spinach

Anti-inflammatories are found in foods that prevent excessive cell turnover. Examples include:

  • Oily fish, such as salmon and sardines (rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D)
  • Foods rich in natural salicylates, such as apricots, culinary herbs, and spices
  • Green tea, red grapes, and cocoa

Anti-carcinogens are found in foods that provide nutrients that enhance the removal of carcinogens (mutation inducers) from the body. Examples include:

  • Cruciferous vegetables, such as those in the cabbage family, including cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, mustard, kale, and watercress
  • Allium vegetables, such as those in the garlic family, including onions, leeks, chives, scallions, and shallots

For more information, visit the American Cancer Society Web site at www.cancer.org; it has many excellent nutrition ideas and cookbooks available.

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