February is the cancer prevention month and there are ongoing cancer awareness and prevention activities around the world. Cancer is not a single disease but a large group of diseases defined by uncontrolled growth of abnormal body cells and can affect and invade almost any part of the body. In Ghana, the common sites for cancers are breast, cervix, ovary, liver and prostate 2. Different types of cancers have different risk factors which may or may not be modifiable.

Did you know that your diet and lifestyle can reduce your risk of many cancers? There is so much information in the media about cancer prevention that it can be difficult to know what advice to trust. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), the leading global scientific authority on cancer prevention suggest that about a third of the most common cancers can be prevented through diet, healthy weight and regular physical activity. The global scientific evidence regarding cancer prevention and risk factors is continually growing and WCRF recommendations are updated as new evidence becomes available.  Here are some of the current key WCRF recommendations to reduce your overall cancer risk.

Maintain a healthy weight. There is strong scientific evidence that being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing 11 different types of cancer including cancers of the liver, womb and bowel; breast cancer after the menopause and advanced prostate cancer 3. A healthy weight for your height is classified by a body mass index (BMI) of 20 – 25 kg/m2. You can check if you are a healthy weight from this link www.foodinfocus.org

To maintain a healthy weight, watch your food portion sizes and increase your level of physical activity. High calorie intake from fatty and sugary foods and drinks will lead to weight gain. Eat less high fat foods such as deep fried foods, fatty meats and pastries. Limit sugary drinks such as squashes and fruit juice drinks.

Enjoy a wide variety of non-starchy plant foods. Unprocessed whole grains, fruits, vegetables and different types of beans contain plant chemicals known as antioxidants, which protect the body’s cells from damage that may lead to development of cancers.  Scientific evidence shows that plant foods which are also rich in fibre can decrease the risk of bowel cancer by moving food waste quicker from the large bowel 3. Fibre rich plant foods can also help with managing your weight by keeping you full after eating for longer periods. Antioxidant- rich plant foods include kontomire, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, soya beans, garlic, brown rice, corn, whole wheat,  millet, sorghum and all types of beans. Aim at least five handfuls of different coloured fruits and non-starchy vegetables daily.

Avoid mouldy grains.  Consuming foods contaminated by aflatoxins (toxins produced by fungi) increases the risk of liver cancer 3. Improper drying of foods such as grains including corn and groundnuts may lead to the growth of mould and possible contamination.

Limit red meat and avoid processed meat. There is strong research evidence regarding the links between high intake of red meat, processed meat and cancer, in particular bowel and stomach cancer 3.

Consider limiting your intake of red meat such as beef, pork, lamb, goat and their products to no more than 500g of cooked meat per week.  You may eat less than this without significantly increasing your cancer risk.3. WCRF further recommends avoiding meats processed by smoking, curing, salting and addition of chemical preservatives such as bacon, salted pig’s feet, corned beef, ham and processed sausages.

Be physically active. Physical activity does not only have benefits in reducing your weight but being active for at least 30 minutes every day can also reduce your risk of bowel cancer, womb cancer and breast cancer after the menopause 3.

You can increase your activity levels by spending less time watching TV or behind your computers and moving around more.  Aim for activity at moderate to vigorous pace to get your heart beating faster and breathing more deeply. For cancer prevention, brisk walking is equally as good as engaging in a recreational sport or going to the gym.

Don’t drink alcohol and limit if you do drink. All types of alcohol including red wine are known to be linked to 6 different types of cancer including liver, breast, mouth and throat cancers. Research has shown that alcohol is particularly harmful when combined with smoking 3. It is recommended that if you do drink alcohol at all then limit to a maximum of 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women.

Breastfeed your baby. Breastfeeding for a minimum of six months protects mothers against breast cancer that occurs both before and after the menopause.

In conclusion, current scientific evidence informs us that cancer prevention need not be about restrictive diets, unfamiliar foods or pills but fits with general diet and physical activity recommendations for health.  Hope this month of cancer awareness provides you with more reasons and motivation to make healthy diet and lifestyle changes.