Linda Blanchard took up running 23 years ago, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She figured regular exercise and getting herself from her home in Willow to her daily radiation treatments in Anchorage was about all she could do to combat the disease.
Some seven or eight years later, she learned that food might play a role in cancer survival. She started eating more fruits and vegetables, and she cut back on fats. She began opting for chicken or fish instead of beef on a pretty regular basis.
Today the 59-year-old retired school nurse wants to know what else she can do. She’s attending weekly cooking classes sponsored by the Cancer Project to find out. The Cancer Project is a national nonprofit health organization. Its “Food for Life: Nutrition and Cooking” class is an eight-week series developed by physicians, nutrition experts and registered dietitians.
“The purpose of the series is to help people make healthy choices to prevent cancer or to survive it if they already have it,” said Delisa Renideo, a Cancer Project instructor and former nurse.
But, she said, “This isn’t only about cancer. That’s the hot topic, but the same diet we’re talking about is going to help fight heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure — pretty much all the diseases of affluence, which is what we have in the United States.”
Each class includes information about how certain foods and nutrients either promote or discourage cancer growth, as well as cooking demonstrations of simple, nutritious recipes. The recipes are low-fat and plant-based.
That means meat, poultry and dairy products are out.
But judging by the fare offered at the first class at the Willow Community Center recently, taste is in. Renideo served up homemade hummus — a spread made with ground garbanzo beans and seasonings — on pita bread or carrots, a vegetable stir fry served on brown rice, a mixed-bean salad served with low-fat Italian dressing and salsa, and a mixed-berry smoothie made with vanilla-flavored soy milk.
“I thought it was excellent,” Blanchard said. She says she’s ready to give the vegan way a try.
Vegan is a term that distinguishes pure vegetarians from those who eat poultry, fish or dairy products. That distinction seems key to the Food for Life philosophy.
Studies have shown that people on plant-based diets tend to have significantly lower cancer rates than those on meat-based diets, according to a Cancer Project handbook distributed at the class.
People in rural Asia and Africa, for example, where traditional diets are based on rice or grains and a mix of starchy vegetables, fruits and beans, generally avoid cancer, according to the handbook. When it does strike, they are more likely to survive.
Studies have also shown that diets rich in meat, dairy products, fried foods and even vegetable oils boost hormones such as estrogen, which is linked to breast cancer in women, and testosterone, which researchers suspect plays a role in prostate cancer in men, the handbook reports.
These hormone levels fall significantly in both men and women when they reduce the amount of fat in their diets.
If you’re looking to trim fat, though, simply cutting beef and switching to low-fat dairy products won’t do, Renideo said. While the percentage of calories from fat is higher in beef than it is in chicken or fish, the difference is slight. The leanest beef, for example, derives nearly a third of its calories from fat, according to the Cancer Project, while white-meat chicken and tuna derive nearly a quarter of their calories from fat.
And dairy products — even fat-free or low-fat — play a role in cancer growth as well, according to the Cancer Project. Studies have shown, for example, that drinking milk raises the levels of insulinlike growth factor in the bloodstream. IGF-I, the handbook says, is a powerful stimulus for cancer cell growth.
The Food for Life classes stress diets based on fruits, grains, vegetables and legumes.
“If you build your meals around these four food groups, then you really are going to have a healthy diet,” Renideo said.
Jean Hodson, a 49-year-old Willow woman who attended the first class, says she’s living proof. Hodson, a fitness instructor at Curves in Big Lake, is a 10-year breast cancer survivor. She’s been a vegan for seven years and says she’s not had so much as a sniffle in all that time.
“I know it has a lot to do with the way I’ve taken care of myself,” Hodson said.
She said she’s attending primarily to add to her stockpile of vegetarian recipes. But she’s spread the word about the classes to friends and clients in the hopes that they, too, might make the switch to a plant-based diet.
Renideo fills each class with tips to make that switch more likely. She suggests strategies like chopping vegetables ahead of time or using frozen fruits and vegetables instead of fresh, for example, which saves both time and money.
And she encourages participants to swear off meat, poultry and dairy products completely, at least for the duration of the course, to see whether veganism is right for them.
“If you really practice what you’re learning here, you will give this a real good test,” Renideo said. “You won’t really be able to tell if this is working for you if you just do it between your cheeseburgers.”
Did you know?
When a woman begins a low-fat diet, the amount of estrogen in her bloodstream can drop by 15-50 percent within a few weeks, depending on how low-fat her diet is. Less estrogen means less stimulus for cancer cell growth.
A study of 953 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer showed that their risk of dying at any point in time increased by 40 percent for every 1,000 grams of fat consumed per month.
A person on a typical American diet consumes approximately 1,500 more grams of fat each month than a person on a low-fat pure vegetarian diet.
A 1998 Harvard study found that men who typically consumed more than two servings of milk per day were at 60 percent greater risk of developing prostate cancer than those who generally avoided milk.
Source: “The Survivor’s Handbook: Eating Right for Cancer Survival,” published by the Cancer Project