Now that the holidays are in our rear-view mirror, many of us are focused on leaving the high-proof, sugar-coated, fat-laden freeway we’ve been traversing since late November and heading for the highway to good health.
Whether it’s eating better, dropping a few pounds, sleeping more or kicking nicotine to the curb once and for all, public health scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are here with science-based tips for avoiding dead ends and wrong turns as you head down the resolution road.
The impact of what you eat all day, every day adds up, said nutritional epidemiologist Dr. Marian Neuhouser, recently named head of the Hutch’s Cancer Prevention Program. “Having one day where you don’t eat particularly well is not terrible,” she said. “It’s the whole dietary pattern over the course of one’s life that’s important.” A holistic approach to food not only helps fend off disease, but it also will help you lose weight, maintain a healthy weight, and lower your risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and most likely cancer.
Choose foods carefully. Build meals and snacks around vegetables, fruit with no added sugar, whole grains, and lean meats, said Neuhouser. During food purchasing and preparation, limit sodium and any type of added sugar. “If you do eat processed meats such as bacon, bologna, ham, sausage, and other lunch meats, try to limit to once or twice a week,” she added, citing a 2016 World Health Organization report that labeled processed meats as a known carcinogen and classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic.”
Drink in moderation, if at all. If cutting back on alcohol — or abstaining completely — is on your resolution list, a side benefit could include reducing your risk of breast cancer. A study by Fred Hutch breast cancer epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Li and colleagues found that women who consumed at least two drinks a day had an 80 percent higher risk of breast cancer overall compared to nondrinkers.
Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates. Not all carbohydrates are created equal, said Neuhouser. Carbs are fine, as long as they aren’t the highly processed and refined kind, such as white rice and foods made with white flour and sugar. Instead of cookies, donuts, and squishy white bagels, eat high-fiber, nutrient-rich, unrefined carbs such as whole grains, legumes (lentils, soybeans), fruits, and vegetables.
Skip sugar-sweetened drinks. Overconsumption of sugary beverages has been linked to obesity, diabetes, cancer, and other health problems. “If you want to make one change in dietary habit that will clearly benefit you with regard to the reduction of disease, it’s reducing your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages like fruit drinks, energy drinks, and soda," said Dr. Mario Kratz, who studies the link between diet, obesity, and disease.
Watch the salt. Too much sodium can spike blood pressure and put you at risk for heart disease and stroke. Read those food labels: More than 400 to 500 milligrams of sodium per serving is considered too high. Neuhouser said Americans consume “about twice as much as the tolerable upper limit.” Instead of the salt shaker, try a squirt of fresh lemon or a sprinkle of thyme or basil to bring out flavor.
Research shows that when it comes to losing weight, calorie reduction is more important than diet composition. With this in mind, epidemiologist Dr. Anne McTiernan and colleagues conducted a randomized, controlled clinical study to identify what behaviors helped people keep their calories low. Here’s what they found:
Track your calories. Women who kept food journals to track their calories consistently lost about six pounds more than those who didn’t. That’s because tallying your calorie intake “forces you to pay attention so you stay within a range of calories a day that will produce weight loss,” said McTiernan, who’s written a book about her own struggles with food. But you have to be diligent — and honest. Record every morsel that passes your lips; measure portions and read labels (don’t forget toppings, condiments or ingredients used in preparation like olive oil) and carry your food diary or diet-tracking smartphone app with you always.
Don’t skip meals. Women who skipped meals lost almost eight fewer pounds than women who did not. “The mechanism is not completely clear,” said McTiernan, “but we think that skipping meals or fasting might cause you to … take in more calories overall.”
Prepare your own meals, especially lunch. Women who ate lunch out at least once a week lost on average five fewer pounds than those who ate out less often, according to the study. Dining out frequently at all meal times was associated with less weight loss, but the strongest association was observed with lunch. “Eating in restaurants usually means less individual control over ingredients and cooking methods, as well as larger portion sizes,” McTiernan said. The more you buy and cook your own food, the more control you have over maintaining a healthy diet, she said.
Physical activity is one of the best things you can do to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and other chronic ailments because it reduces excessive production of the hormone insulin and other cancer promoters, such as estrogen and inflammation. McTiernan led a study that found regular, moderate exercise also reduces intra-abdominal fat, a hidden risk factor for many chronic illnesses, particularly among postmenopausal women. Brisk walking 45 minutes a day, five days a week can reduce hidden belly fat by up to 7 percent, even without changing your diet.
Looking for ways to dovetail exercise into your daily routine? Try McTiernan’s expert tips:
“You cannot underestimate the importance of good-quality sleep,” said Hutch epidemiologist Dr. Amanda Phipps, who studies how sleep (or the lack of it) affects cancer survival. Consistent low-quality sleep can contribute to the development of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression, and maybe even cancer.
Unplug at night. Resist the urge to text, tweet, and surf the web before you tuck in for the night. Smartphones, tablets, and other screens emit light that disrupts sleep.
Sweat in the morning, sleep better at night. McTiernan and colleagues found that, in addition to reducing the risk of cancer and other diseases, physical activity improves sleep quality. Women who exercised for at least half an hour each morning, seven days a week, had less trouble falling asleep at night.
Smoking is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer, but it can also play a role in the development of cancers, including those of the liver, bladder, pancreas, cervix, esophagus, kidney, and prostate. One Fred Hutch study found that middle-aged men who were long-term, heavy smokers doubled their risk of developing an aggressive form of prostate cancer compared to men who had never smoked.
Quit for your kids. Fred Hutch psychologist and public health researcher Dr. Jonathan Bricker found parents who quit smoking before their child reached third grade significantly reduced their child’s odds of becoming a smoker in high school. When one parent quit, the child’s odds decreased by 25 percent; when both parents quit, the child’s odds of smoking dropped by 40 percent. These findings, Bricker said, could “help tip the motivational balance for parents — or prospective parents — who want to do something about their smoking behavior, both for their own sake and that of their child.”
There’s an app for that. And a website. And a phone line. If this is the year you’re determined to quit, there’s a smartphone app that may help. Developed by Bricker, the 2MorrowQuit smoking-cessation app (formerly known as SmartQuit) is two to three times more effective than quitting on your own. It’s also free to residents of Washington state. No smartphone? No problem. The National Cancer Institute’s website, smokefree.gov, offers plenty of encouragement and advice. You can also speak to a smoking-cessation expert by calling 800-QUIT-NOW. Cancer patients going through treatment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance also can seek help through its Living Tobacco-Free Services.
Studies show that about 72 percent of us are able to keep a resolution for at least a week, and 58 percent can hang in there for a full month. When it comes to permanent, long-term success, the statistics shrink to a measly 9 percent, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute.
How to improve these odds and make a resolution that you’ll actually keep? Bricker offers the following tips:
Know what matters to you. Think about what will make the change worthwhile. Do you want to lose weight or quit smoking because you care about your own health or want to show your love for your family? “Dignify your resolutions with your values,” Bricker said.
Make a specific, achievable plan. Think small, as in losing five — not 10 — pounds in one month. When you reach that goal, make another small goal. “Thinking big is daunting,” he said. “Thinking small can work.”
Be kind to yourself. Give yourself a break and allow yourself to slip. “Surprisingly, giving yourself permission to mess up can make it easier to try again,” Bricker said.
Be mindful. Pay attention to the triggers that drive undesired behavior: What are you thinking and feeling before you eat the cookie, smoke the cigarette, grab the drink or compulsively check your Twitter feed while in bed? Then, be willing to just sit with those sensations rather than fight them. “If you can watch them for a few minutes, you may discover they are not so urgent. And sometimes they even go away,” he said.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at email@example.com.
Kristen Woodward, a former associate editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, had been in communications at Fred Hutch for more than 20 years. Before that, she was a managing editor at the University of Michigan Health System and a reporter/editor at The Holland Sentinel, a daily in western Michigan. She has received many national awards for health and science writing. She received her B.A. in journalism from Michigan State University.