Recent research suggests that modifiable risk factors are contributing to more than a third of cancers. Such factors include being overweight or obese, having a low fruit and vegetable intake, physical inactivity, and smoking or alcohol use. Diet-related cancers in Australia account for the loss of more than 7000 potential years of life. Between 30-40 percent of cancers are diet related, including bowel, breast and stomach. Colon cancer affects approximately 9500 Australians and kills around 3500 every year. Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in women.
Improving your diet can help protect your body against cancer. We have known for some time that reducing your dietary intake of fat (particularly saturated fat) and salt, eating more plant foods rich in dietary fibre and phytochemicals, maintaining a healthy body weight and drinking alcohol in moderation are important considerations in cancer prevention.
A diet rich in grains, fruit and vegetables is particularly important. Not only are these foods low in fat and high in fibre, but they also contain antioxidants, which help to fight cancer. These antioxidants work to mop up the free radicals, or unstable molecules in your body, that can cause changes to cells that lead to cancer.
Antioxidants are still big news, but it seems not all antioxidants are equal. Some human research has found it difficult to separate the benefit of antioxidants from the other healthy parts of the diet. It seems that antioxidant function may work best in natural foods and there may be synergies between other antioxidants and bioactives/phytochemicals/nutrients in the food that create the greatest benefit.
Along with these guidelines, The Cancer Council Australia recommends eating meat in moderation — three to four serves of cooked, lean red meat each week. You should also limit high heat forms of cooking meat such as barbecuing as the smoking and charring of meat can also cause the production of harmful, cancer-causing chemicals like nitrosamines and heterocyclic amines. However, exciting new research is showing that culinary herbs may help. Adding some rosemary to barbecued lamb, for example, helps to prevent the formation of cancer-causing compounds. For similar reasons it also pays to watch out for smoked foods like smoked fish and bacon.
The Cancer Council of Australia recommends that you limit or avoid drinking alcohol. Their guidelines are to have one or two alcohol-free days a week and limit yourself on other days to no more than one standard drink for women and two standard drinks for men.
For great tasting recipes and more information on maximising your wellbeing, pick up a copy of The Australian Women's Weekly's cookbook, Wellbeing: Healthy Eating — Foods that Fight Back.
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