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Teaching Nutrition: Background information about nutrition, the nutrients, and healthy eating habits

Large letter "C".

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States; approximately 500,000 Americans will die each year from some form of the disease. Cancer can occur almost anywhere in the body, and individual diseases are named based on the tissue of origin. For example, carcinoma is the name given to cancers of the skin.

Cancer is an abnormal, uncontrolled growth pattern of cells often leading to tumors, anomalous clusters of cells. When the cells spread from the original site to places around the body it is called metastasis.

Cancer develops when the genetic material of a cell is changed or damaged in a way that allows the cell to grow and divide uncontrollably. A variety of things can cause this change, sometimes called a mutation, including chemicals (such as benzene or certain pesticides), viruses (such as RSV or Epstein-Barr), or radiation (from X-rays or exposure to nuclear material).

Additionally, several lifestyle and dietary factors have been implicated as promoting cancer in humans. Smoking, exposure to the sun, and being overweight have been linked with certain types of cancer. There are many other factors that have been discussed as promoting or helping to prevent cancer. Additional research is needed to help tease out the effects of all of the different factors that impact humans each day and across life.

It is very clear that diet seems to have at least some impact on cancer risk. What isn’t known is exactly which foods, at which amounts, delivering which nutrients or chemicals help to delay or encourage the onset of cancer – or how these nutrients or chemicals actually do their work. Also unknown: how age of life, general health status, overall body weight, and other lifestyle factors contribute to the effects of diet.

Reduction of cancer risk by diet does not depend on any single factor, but requires an overall change in eating patterns and food preparation methods. The American Cancer Society has issued the following guidelines for cancer prevention:

ACS Recommendation
Healthy Living Tip
Eat a variety of healthful foods, with an emphasis on plant sources.   Eat at least five servings of a wide variety of brightly colored vegetables and fruits each day.
Choose whole grains in preference to processed (refined) grains and sugars. At least half of your grains and grain products should be whole.
Limit consumption of red meats, especially those high in fat and processed. Consider adding fish to your diet.
Choose foods that maintain a healthful weight.
Adopt a physically active lifestyle.   Adults: Engage in at least moderate activity for 30 minutes or more on 5 or more days of the week; 45 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous activity on 5 or more days per week may further enhance reductions in the risk of breast and colon cancer.
Children and adolescents: Engage in at least 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at least 5 days per week.
Maintain a healthful weight throughout life.   Balance caloric intake with physical activity.
Lose weight if currently overweight or obese. If you drink alcoholic beverages, limit consumption.

Additionally, it is suggested that avoiding charred and salted meats, consuming fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and choosing brightly colored fruits and vegetables may also help decrease the risk of cancer.

The American Cancer Society has more information about food and physical activity, as it relates to cancer, at:

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