SOURCE: Native Health News Alliance

Native Health News Alliance

April 01, 2015 08:30 ET

Experts: Diet Full of Colorful Vegetables, Whole Grains and Lean Protein Can Help Reduce Cancer Risk

SAN DIEGO, CA--(Marketwired - April 01, 2015) - Obesity and diabetes are some the most controllable risk factors for cancer. These two diseases, common in American Indian communities across the nation, are contributing to some of the highest rates of cancer in American Indians compared with previous generations.

Research shows diet and nutrition can play a major role in reducing the lifetime risk of cancer and its risk factors such as diabetes and obesity. 

Stacy Hammer (Lower Sioux), a registered dietician and diabetes program coordinator in Minnesota's Lower Sioux Indian Community, works with the American Indian Cancer Foundation to bring awareness to diet and lifestyle risk factors for cancer.

Over the years, she says, most tribes have lost their traditional foods.

"If you look at what our traditional diet was before we were placed on reservations and the commodity foods began, our diet [had] so much lean protein sources," Hammer says. "We did have a higher fiber diet. We didn't have any of these refined carbohydrates that were given to us. When we were placed on reservations, physical activity pretty much ended because we weren't foraging for our food."

In 2015, nearly 1.7 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. along with 589,000 cancer deaths.

One-third of those deaths could be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, eating the right foods and physical activity, says Christine Zoumas, director of the Healthy Eating Program at the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California-San Diego.

"We're very educated in knowing how cigarettes affect cancer, but your lifestyle now really has an impact on your risk of cancer," Zoumas says. "They're seeing this more and more, especially [with] weight. We're getting heavier and heavier as a nation."

In Indian Country, access to healthy foods depends on a tribe's location and resources. Food deserts are common. The rural Lower Sioux Indian Reservation, also known as the Mdewankanton Tribal Reservation, is located two hours southwest of Minneapolis and is marked with some local grocers and food retailers.

"Access is not really an issue here, but it's the choices," Hammer says, describing the typical food habits of the estimated 850 people living in the community.

She says most of the tribe's elders enjoy 'comfort foods' -- heavy dishes like casseroles, pastas and soups -- that use a lot of processed starches and boxed foods. 

"Now today, it's a lot of the same. In talking to kids, asking what are you typically eating at home, again it's prepackaged mac and cheese. It's Chef Boyardee," Hammer says. "It's things that are in a can or in a box. There's not a whole lot of cooking going on."

But one of the biggest things a person can do to cut their cancer risk is cook with bold-colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, says Zoumas, who teaches monthly cooking workshops for cancer patients and their families.

Research has found colorful fruits and vegetables, such as red bell peppers, berries and dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, hold phytochemicals, which have the potential to slow the growth rate of cancer cells and prevent DNA damage.

"The phytonutrient is actually a color," Zoumas says. "It is a plant's defense system. So when you're seeing the red, you're seeing the lycopene. When you're seeing the green, you're seeing the lutein. When you see orange, you're seeing the beta-carotene. These chemicals are bioactive, and when we eat it, it has that protective effect on us."

Phytochemicals also act as antioxidants, blocking the activity of chemicals called free radicals that have the potential to damage cells, which can lead to cancer.

However studies show phytochemicals aren't proven to have the same protective effect when extracted from the plant and taken as a vitamin or supplement.

Curtiss Hemm, a chef in Peru, New York, specializes in recipes for breast cancer nutrition. He says excess weight can produce higher levels of hormones such as estrogen in women, which can increase their risk for breast cancer.

"I don't care which culture you're from, increasingly we're sedentary, and there is an obesity epidemic that is present," Hemm says. "If you look at breast cancer in particular, a known risk factor for breast cancer is obesity."

In his community, he says seven out of ten women with cancer or that are cancer survivors are clinically overweight or obese.

"Their prognosis is more challenged than someone who is not obese or overweight, taking out genetic risk factors," Hemm says.

While he's careful to note that there is no one food that can cure cancer, simple lifestyle modifications can play a huge role in reducing a person's risk for the disease and fighting it off during treatment, Hemm says.

In 2005, after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, Hemm founded Pink Ribbon Cooking, which focuses on healthy cooking for breast cancer patients with recipes that use whole foods.

His recipes incorporate items like walnuts, oats, rice, vegetables and chicken, among many other cancer-fighting foods. 

For most of those dealing with cancer, he says it's hard to say how a patient's body and diet will respond to treatment. That's because it depends on how advanced the cancer is, the type of treatment prescribed and its potential side effects.

Surgery can sometimes remove tumors and resolve the cancer; other times treatment requires chemotherapy or radiation, which can result in a loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and in some cases, weight loss.

"In that case, you're going to really want to respond with protein," Hemm says. "You're going to want to have high protein foods that are lean that allow your cells to replenish and rebuild properly. Protein is a building block for everything that we are as a human being."

Nutrition guidelines by the American Cancer Society recommend opting for lean proteins like chicken and turkey and limiting processed and red meats as a way to maintain a healthy weight.

Back in Minnesota, Hammer says she tells community members that it's not just about managing their weight or diabetes anymore. Now, it's about preventing cancer, too.

"You can't prevent all cancers obviously, but if cancer does happen and you are in that good nutritional status, you are improving a lot of factors," Hammer says. "Dietary factors and physical activity contribute to approximately one-third of all cancers. Those are things you can control."

© This is the latest in a series of cancer stories produced by the Native Health News Alliance (NHNA), a partnership of the Native American Journalists Association and the American Indian Cancer Foundation.

NHNA creates shared health coverage for American Indian communities at no cost. Registered users can download additional print, web and audio content at and publish as is or add their own reporting, highlighting important issues within the local Native community. NHNA services are free to all those who think good journalism has a positive impact in the lives of all of our readers, listeners, and viewers

Whole Wheat Pancakes Recipe (recipe courtesy of

These simple and easy pancakes can serve anywhere from 4 to 6 people; it just depends on the appetite.

1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 ½ cups skim milk
3 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
4 tbsp. maple syrup

1. In a large bowl stir together the dry ingredients (the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt). In another bowl combine the wet ingredients (the egg, buttermilk, and oil). Add wet mixture to the dry mixture all at once. With a wooden spoon stir the mixture just until moistened (batter should be slightly lumpy).

2. Over medium heat place a lightly greased a griddle or heavy skillet. Pour batter onto the hot griddle (about 1/4 cup for normal size pancakes). Cook over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. The pancakes should be golden brown, turning over when pancakes have holes appearing on their surfaces and edges are slightly set.

3. Divide pancakes among plates or serve on a large platter. If desired, top with syrup and/or fresh fruit as a healthy topping.

I created this recipe to accommodate more whole wheat flour into our breakfast recipes and as a mechanism for people not used to whole wheat flour to move towards it as a staple ingredient. The white flour promotes tenderness (something whole wheat flour cannot do) and the whole wheat flour makes these a more substantial and satisfying pancake.

If you wish to move to 100% whole wheat flour, simply do so and then fold in 2 whipped egg whites to the batter. This will assure you get a 100% whole-wheat product and give you a lighter and fluffier pancake.

Feel free to add fresh berries to your pancake.

Servings: 4. Amount Per Serving, Calories: 408, Total Fat: 11.48g, Cholesterol: 48mg, Sodium: 623mg, Total Carbs: 64.33g, Dietary Fiber: 3.26g, Sugars: 17.62g, Protein: 11.44g

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