Food & Fitness After 50: Diet and Cancer Connection

Vancouver grandson Michael (1)
Alice with her grandson

Alice, in her early 60s, talks the talk and walks the walk when it comes to understanding the connection between diet and cancer. I interviewed her about her personal journey to optimal aging and what we should all know about diet and cancer. She is the Senior Director for Nutrition Programs for the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and for the past 10 years, she has developed and coordinated nutrition programming and communicators for the Institute.

Tell me about your path to your current work with AICR.

For many years I worked in college health, first at Stanford and then for 16 years at the University of Georgia. In my role as the Health Center nutrition provider, I was a staff of one, so I learned to do everything, from student counseling to communications to working with a team of health professionals to keep the students as healthy possible. When my husband took a job in the Washington DC area I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go. I knew about AICR and when a position came available for nutrition communications, it turned out to be the right job at the right time for me. An important part of my job is keeping health professionals up to date on the evidence surrounding diet and cancer and that really appealed to me. Doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and other health professionals spend a lot of time with patients, but they don’t have adequate nutrition training. By helping them understand evidenced-based information we hope they pass along sound nutrition information when they talk to people.

Has working with AICR changed the eating habits of your family?

We’ve always eaten healthfully but we made some changes when I learned more about the diet-cancer connection. We were always a brown-bag lunch family, but I stopped making sandwiches with processed deli meats as our guidelines suggest eating less red and processed meat to reduce cancer risk. We adopted AICR’s simple rule: the 2/3 and 1/3 plate rule, that is to make 2/3 or more of your plate whole grains, beans, fruits, and veggies and 1/3 or less animal protein. That is a simple rule that is easily followed. My daughters are now in the thirties with their own families and they are proud of their nutrition savvy as they plan meals for their families.

I hear many older adults say, “it’s too late for me to prevent cancer, the damage is done, so why bother?” What would you say to that idea?

It is simply not true….it is never too late, or too early, to lower your risk for cancer. It is our choices over time that matter most. When you start choosing healthier foods, like a black bean, tuna or salmon burger instead of a bacon cheeseburger, you will reap health benefits. Lowering blood pressure, reducing blood sugar and insulin levels, losing a few pounds, and decreasing inflammation changes your body’s environment and that can reduce cancer risk. You will put yourself in a better position to remain healthy through the foods you choose.

The AICR has so much helpful information on the website, but is there one site that you think everyone should know about?

I love our New American Plate Challenge. It’s a 12-week, free, interactive challenge that helps you:

  • Learn to eat a healthy, flexible plant-based diet
  • Become more physically active
  • Model a healthy lifestyle for your family
  • Complement your current healthy weight/ lifestyle program

When you sign up you’ll receive a weekly challenge for 12 weeks, with support emails for motivation, along with tips, tools, and recipes to help you meet the challenge. There is also support from a private Facebook community. We’ve reached thousands of people with the challenge. Instead of celebrity challenges to give up carbs for a month, why not challenge yourself with something that will benefit you for a lifetime?

We’ve been talking about cancer prevention, but there is also a wealth of information for cancer survivors on your website. As a 13-year breast cancer survivor, I appreciate the science-based information on your website as compared to the science fiction that is circulating on the Internet.

We are learning so much about nutrition for cancer survivors. We encourage survivors to follow the same cancer prevention guidelines for everyone. Emerging research shows that mortality rates are lower for cancer survivors when they follow our guidelines. We have a program, AICR iTHRIVE for cancer survivors that provides helpful information and specific, doable steps to take related to all dimensions of wellness.

What are your keys for wellness as you age?

parkrun with husband Michael (1)
Alice and her husband at Park Run event

Besides eating healthfully, I’m physically active and my activity has evolved over the years. When I was on a college campus it was easy to exercise by taking advantage of the student and staff fitness facilities and I played a lot of tennis on UGA’s courts. When I moved to DC a big part of my daily physical activity came from using public transportation on my commute. Walking to bus or train stations adds activity every day. And, DC is such a great walking city.

My husband is a bird watcher, so we love to hike. And, we discovered Park Run USA, free, weekly timed 5K (3.1 miles) walk/run events. We love spending Saturdays with this great community and I just completed by 50th park run. It is more than exercise…it is fun, and we’ve bonded with many others who show up each week to participate.

The community aspect of the weekly run is another important part of aging well. Finding your tribe, be it community, church, political, or otherwise, contributes to the social support that we all need as we age.

And, lastly, I maintain an intellectual curiosity to learn new things. In the field of nutrition there is always something new to learn and I’m also intrigued by technology and how to use the many tools to communicate health, nutrition, and fitness information in as many ways as I can.

What challenges have you faced as you’ve aged?

Probably the biggest personal challenge is time to do everything I want to do! I work full-time and have a 45 minute to an hour commute to and from work, am inclined to want to be involved in many things, but find I tire a bit more easily. That could be related to over-committing. I certainly don’t stay up as late as I used to!

A professional challenge is the amount of information, and much of it is misinformation, about nutrition. At AICR I hear so many myths that just won’t die! We have a section on our website Healthy or Harmful to help dispel the most common myths, such as soy is harmful for cancer survivors.

Any words of wisdom for others?

Granddaughter (1)
Alice with her granddaughter

I encourage people to get out of their echo chambers and spend time with people of all ages. I love seeing how my daughters navigate the world for their children; it is so different than when I was their age. Many of my co-workers are younger and I do enjoy both learning from them. I feel younger when I can work effectively with people of different generations.

I also think that although many people know what healthy food choices are, we, as dietitians, need to understand the behavioral issues at play that influence people to make the choices they make. I want to better understand how we can tap into behavioral strategies to keep us all healthy for as long as possible.

 

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved.