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Fighting breast cancer one colorful vegetable at a time: a tribute to my grandmother

Below is my blog post “Fighting breast cancer one colorful vegetable at a time: a tribute to my grandmother.”

You  can also read it on Huffington Post HERE.

I first got interested in nutrition many years ago. While hardly as popular a field back then as it is today, my love of nutrition, the field which ultimately became my profession, was due, to a large extent, on my close bond with my beloved grandmother.

Grandma Ceil, as she was known to our family, was a fighter and a powerhouse. She was diagnosed with breast cancer (which no one ever talked about) around 1970, while in her 50s. An avid cook and baker, grandma loved to eat. And her love of food (not always the right ones!) showed on her waistline.

Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, while undergoing treatment, my grandmother became fascinated with nutrition and its relationship to health. So much so that she began practicing and preaching healthy eating to us.

Grandma Ceil lived with cancer for over 20 years and throughout her lifetime with us (she lived a full life till the age of 80), she was vibrant, upbeat, and never missed a family outing. She also made a point at talking to anyone who would listen (that meant me) about the latest nutrition information she had just received from the numerous health organizations she was contacting to find out more about diet and health.

Over the years, my grandmother’s preaching had a profound influence on me. So much so that I’ve spent a good part of my career educating and counseling individuals and families on healthy eating and disease prevention. Below I share some simple guidelines we can follow to help protect us from breast cancer.

First, I must preface by saying that preventing breast cancer, or any other cancer for that matter, is not an exact science. One can follow a super healthy eating and lifestyle program and still get breast cancer. (In fact one out of eight women will be diagnosed with the disease in her lifetime. And not all have poor health habits.) We now know, however, that the following lifestyle factors can help prevent breast cancer throughout one’s life—and also improve health outcomes for breast cancer survivors. (There are currently more than 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the US!) So it’s not too late to start adopting them now.

1. Load up on colorful fruits and vegetables.

Lots of evidence exists that eating colorful vegetables—think red peppers, broccoli, carrots, leafy greens, cauliflower, blueberries, tomatoes—is very helpful in reducing the risk for breast cancer. Colorful vegetables are rich in antioxidants including vitamin C, beta carotene, lycopene, and flavonoids and contain protective properties to fight cancer. These vegetables are also high in fiber and low in calories which can help keep your waistline in check, also important. The different colors often contain different nutrients so it’s best to eat the rainbow, so to speak. And don’t be afraid to vary it up and try a new fruit or veggie. You just may like it.

2. Watch your weight—and your waist.

Maintaining a healthy weight is super important in protecting against breast cancer. Where you keep your excess weight also matters. Excess fat around the mid-line (think apple-shaped) is associated with increased estrogen levels—which could set the stage for breast cells to mutate and ultimately become cancerous. So be sure to keep your weight—and your waist— in check with a healthy diet and exercise program.

3. Adopt the Mediterranean way.

Recent research published in JAMA Internal Medicine and The International Journal of Cancer found that adopting a Mediterranean diet—rich in whole grains, olive oil, nuts and legumes, fruits and vegetables—-may prevent breast cancer. It’s no surprise as the Mediterranean diet is a healthy lifestyle diet not only rich in colorful produce and healthy grains but is also low in meat, fried foods, and processed foods. Because managing weight is also an important factor to help fight breast cancer, before pouring the olive oil onto your salad and adding nuts as a snack, be sure to nix the cheese, croutons, butter, and fried foods. And, do watch your olive oil portion as the calories add up quickly (1 tablespoon of olive oil contains 120 calories).

4. Get moving today.

All types of exercise reduces a woman’s risk for breast cancer so choose one you enjoy and are likely to stick with. Aim for about 30 minutes a day at least four to five days a week. No excuses. Moderately intense activity including brisk walking (not window shopping!) and yoga counts as does more vigorous exercise including running and cycling. What matters most is that you keep moving.

For healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly, plus strength training at least twice a week.

5. Don’t over pour…

…I am referring to alcohol, not water. While you may have heard that a glass of wine is protective against heart disease (although I don’t know anyone who got heart disease from a deficiency of alcohol!)) , that same drink (any kind of alcohol) may increase your breast cancer risk. And research shows that moderate drinking —just one drink a day for women—increases the risk.

So if you enjoy a drink, choose it wisely, on occasion, and don’t over pour. And even though wine goblets have increased in size, your drink should still be 5 oz.

6. Cook more.

Research shows that people who cook at home eat healthier and also manage their weight better than those who eat out (or order in) most meals. Home cooked meals are associated with diets lower in calories, sugar and fat, These are great for fighting breast cancer.

Finally, when going food shopping, try keeping the canned foods (canned soups, canned mushrooms) and foods and drinks which come in plastic containers (water bottles, juice containers) on the shelf. Stanford research confirmed a link between canned food and exposure to the hormone-disrupting chemical known as Bisphenol A, or BPA. While it may be difficult to avoid all canned foods and plastic products, try to use as little as possible. And, if you do buy such products, choose brands that are BPA free.

While we can’t change our age, gender, and genetics, it is estimated that healthy lifestyle practices such as I discuss above can help to reduce a woman’s breast cancer risk by about one-third. That would translate to 100,000 US women every year.

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