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Why and How to Stay Healthy to Reduce Breast Cancer Risk

By BCRF | February 25, 2016

BCRF researcher Dr. Graham Colditz shares tips to improve overall health

Aside from feeling better, managing weight through a healthy lifestyle also reduces the risk of many diseases. Weight gain and obesity are established risk factors for at least eight different cancers – including breast cancer – and are responsible for 120,000 cases of cancer each year in the United States. Weight is also a key contributor to other important chronic diseases, like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

We spoke with Dr. Graham Colditz, BCRF researcher at the University of Washington in St. Louis, and co-author of “Together – Every Woman’s Guide to Preventing Breast Cancer.” Here’s what he has to say about the importance of weight management to reduce cancer risk, along with a few tips to help you turn those resolutions from a distant memory into an everyday lifestyle.

Are there specific foods/activities you should avoid that can impact your risk for diseases like cancer?

When it comes to food, the single most important thing to avoid is eating too much.

It’s important to avoid too many animal products and refined grains and sugars.  Alcohol can be heart healthy in moderation for older adults, but even modest amounts can increase the risk of breast cancer and colon cancer. Overall, moderate adult drinking is usually OK. Drinking in youth and young adulthood may be particularly bad for adult breast cancer risk.

Beyond diet, not smoking is key, of course, as is avoiding inactivity – both of which are linked to numerous diseases, including breast cancer.  Steering clear of tanning beds and not getting too much sun are important for lowering the risk of deadly melanoma and other skin caners.

What is the best way to measure your weight loss success? How much does the scale really matter, particularly for small changes?

Like cleaning out the closet or doing taxes, stepping on the bathroom scale isn’t something a lot of us readily choose to do, but there is a good amount of evidence that your oft-neglected scale may be one of the best tools you have for losing weight and keeping it off.  Stepping on the scale every day or every week really helps keep weight gain surprises at bay and allows you to make small adjustments to what you’re eating and how active you are.   And if you’re losing weight too fast – which can hamper long-term success – it can tell you that, too.

Though body mass index (BMI) is not a perfect measure of the excess fat people carry, it is still a very good way to see where you fall in the weight range – healthy, overweight, obese, or underweight.  BMI uses a special calculation of weight and height.  The ideal is to fall within the healthy range, which is a BMI between 18.5 – 24.9. But for most people, losing just five or ten pounds and keeping it off can have real health benefits.  To see where you fall on the BMI scale, calculate your BMI.

What is your advice for maintaining healthy choices throughout the year?

The key is to start with small, achievable goals, and slowly and steadily build up from there.  It’s great to have lofty goals – lose 30 pounds, run a marathon, swim 10k – but the key is to progress up to them slowly.  If you’ve been largely inactive for many years, start out by walking a mile or so a few times a week rather than jumping right to running three miles a day.  This way you build the skills, the habits, and the fitness that puts you on the path for doing more and more and staying healthy and motivated.  The same approach works for losing weight, making healthy food choices, and pretty much any other change in life.

Having a positive mindset helps, too.  Even when staging things correctly, change can be hard.  So realize you’ll likely have some setbacks that go along with your triumphs.  The key is to just keep working at it and moving in the right direction.