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5 ways to reduce cancer risk that have nothing to do with weight

Bodies change, and there is no greater change than the aftermath of cancer. Medical treatments, surgeries, stress, and changing sleep patterns have all taken a toll on your body. And now, you've been told to lose weight to reduce your risk of recurrence and chronic diseases like diabetes.  

The fear of cancer and recurrence is scary enough. But honestly, diets scare this dietitian more. A pattern of restriction, fear-based eating, calorie counting, lack of enjoyable eating—have you been there? These methods simply don't work, and may even release a flood of stress hormones, leading to more inflammation in the body, which, yes, increase the risk of cancer.

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Restricting foods and seeing every piece of food as having the power to help or harm your health only leads to a greater preoccupation with foods. A focus on body size makes people miserable and further removes them from goals that truly do improve health. This is the time to enlist your body as an ally, and not merely see it as a stumbling block. 

Starting a new diet—and inevitably failing at it—makes it all the more difficult to uncover what your real needs are, especially after a trauma such as cancer. Your body can't be your friend if you're not nourishing it. It bears repeating that failing at a diet is not your fault: it's the diet that has failed you.

Your real needs might be better sleep, a good therapist, or a walk with a friend. Dieting and a laser-like focus on weight removes you from any attempt to figure out your true needs. Why? Because it seems weight should be your only concern. For some, that might be appealing; after all, we're told only success at dieting will bring you true joy.

I'm here, by your side, to tell you dieting will not bring you long-term joy. In my practice, I work with you to uncover what your body wants and needs right now. Health-promoting goals should be your primary concern, and not a new way to restrict nourishment. Meeting your needs shouldn't come at a great cost to your health, unlike yo-yo diets, which do impact your health and strength.

Moreover, some medications may cause weight gain. I've known cancer survivors who've grappled with whether to stay on their medications, in favor of weight loss. That's a dangerous game to play, and frankly, as a cancer survivor, you've got a full life to live ahead of you.

So what can you do now? Shifting the focus off your size does not mean abandoning your health, or eating donuts all day. It simply means you are free to determine the best ways to reach your health goals. First, determine your goals. What is it you want to accomplish? Then, set mini-steps to reach your goal.

For example, a cancer survivor with lymphedema is depressed because she can't lift up her small grandchildren any more. She’s been told to lose weight. But are there other ways she can achieve her goal of caring for her grandchildren? 

By exploring the best ways for her to reach her goal without focusing on her size, she decides to try weight lifting. Weight lifting is safe for most people with lymphedema, and all she needs is a few minutes a day to strengthen bones, improve her self-confidence, and even lift her depression.

Her first goal is to search for a certified lymphedema specialist. She finds specialists in her area, determines if they’re covered by insurance, and decides the best time to see someone for a few sessions.

Her next mini-steps are to get a handout from the lymphedema specialist, and decide if she wants to join a gym, or lift weights at home. She then determines the best times and days to lift weights, and where to keep her weights so that they are within sight in those specific times. She sets reminders on her phone, and plays her favorite music at those times. 

Her goal of being strong is now within reach, as she builds muscle, improves her posture, and feels stronger and more self-confident. She accomplished her goal without once stepping on her scale. 

If you're standing on your scale, you're only thinking of which foods to resist, which lasts but a short time. Try these tips to reduce your cancer risk instead.

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1. Add fighting nutrients to your cancer-fighting arsenal.

Cancer researchers have determined that a pattern of eating will reduce your cancer risk more than any one food or superfood, irrespective of weight. In fact, researchers looked at the diets of post-menopausal women using data from the Women's Health Initiative and concluded that consuming a low nutrient diet led to a 10% increase in cancers among “normal weight” women.

Fill your plate with color from a diversity of plants, along with small amounts of protein from beans, whole grains, heart-healthy oils, and nuts. The strongest evidence to date for cancer-fighting foods are phytonutrients from cruciferous vegetables (think the more bitter-tasting vegetables, including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and collard greens). Phytonutrients are particularly powerful, in that they repair DNA damage and inhibit tumors. But all plant foods provide nourishing micro-environments in your body to inhibit cancer growth.

2. Move, move, move, but only in ways you enjoy.

Getting strong, feeling better, improving sleep, lifting depression, getting your heart healthy, are just some of the ways moving in an enjoyable way can benefit you without losing weight. Even if your weight doesn't change, moving will still reduce your risk of cancer. There is strong evidence that movement decreases the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer by 13%, premenopausal breast cancer by 17%, colon cancer by 20% and endometrial cancers by 21-27%.

3. Plant a garden.

It turns out, planting and tending a garden lends a sense of control to the chaos of cancer. Studies of cancer survivors who planted gardens show less side effects from cancer treatments, improved self-worth, and increased movement. Even better, participants stuck with it, and ate an additional serving of vegetables and fruits every day. Lead author Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, a Registered Dietitian and chair of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, is now continuing studies on benefits for survivors and gardening.

4. Find ways to nourish using food.

Yes, most diets will tell you to avoid food, or seek foods that do not nourish you. But simply being told to have that piece of cake whenever you want can bring about a sense of relief in many people. Remarkably, having this kind of food freedom leads to a reduction in cravings, which are largely psychological anyway. But it's a process that takes time, and is best done in the hands of a skilled dietitian and therapist.

Start by rejecting fad diets, or even engaging in talk about diets and weight. Again, this doesn't mean rejecting your health. Instead, trust your body to tell you when it's hungry, content, or full. You can learn the skills to eat mindfully and intuitively in my practice. 

5. Focus on keeping your weight stable, not weight loss.

If you're not ready to turn away from being solely focused on your size or the next fad diet, that's understandable after years of dieting. Start by aiming for weight maintenance. There is no evidence as yet that losing weight will "necessarily improve outcome in breast cancer survivors," according to the World Cancer Research Fund. However, taking steps that promote health do improve outcomes, including eating better, moving more, and meeting your nutritional needs.

If you'd like to work with me to reduce your risk of cancer and recurrence, or learn more about strategies to reach your health goals, please contact Tamar for a free, 15-minute consult, here.

This information is for survivors after treatment or on maintenance. Nutrition is meant only to support you. Always talk to your doctor before making any changes.

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