How portion control can help you
Only 25% of adults in the United States are a healthy body weight. And the link between body weight and cancer is clear. Research shows that if you fall into the overweight or obese categories, you are at higher risk for more than 10 cancers.
Researchers aren't exactly sure why high body weight increases the risk of cancer. It's likely because excess weight causes hormonal changes and inflammation that make cells multiply more rapidly than normal. The more cells multiply, the more likely it is that there will be a mistake that results in uncontrolled growth and cancer. Three factors that cause cells to multiply more quickly are:
- Inflammation. Excess weight causes a build-up of visceral fat, which is the fat that surrounds your organs. That low oxygen environment in visceral fat triggers inflammation, which causes cells to multiply.
- Insulin resistance. Inflammation can also stop your body from responding to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. If you become insulin resistant, your body will produce more insulin and that can cause cells to multiply more quickly.
- Increased estrogen. Fat cells in men and women make estrogen, and estrogen also causes cells to multiply more quickly.
Are you a healthy weight?
One way to find out if you are a healthy weight is to determine your body mass index. You can calculate your BMI using a BMI calculator. Your results will put you in one of four categories: underweight, normal, overweight or obese.
Body Mass Index (BMI) is a tool to help you determine if you are a healthy weight. Fill out the fields below to get your BMI.
|18 or less||Underweight|
|19 - 24||Healthy|
|25 - 29||Overweight|
Your BMI indicates that you are underweight. Talk to your doctor about ways to maintain a healthy weight. No matter what your weight is, eating a plant-based diet and staying physically active can reduce your risk for cancer.
Your BMI is in the normal range. If you have questions or concerns about your BMI or maintaining a healthy weight, talk to your doctor. No matter what your weight is, eating a plant-based diet and staying physically active can reduce your risk for cancer.
Your BMI is in the overweight range. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. You can take steps to maintain a healthy weight.
Your BMI is in the obese range. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. You can take steps to maintain a healthy weight.
BMI is not the only way to see if you are carrying too much body fat. You can also measure your waist circumference. The amount of extra weight around your belly correlates to the amount of visceral fat you have around your organs.
Whichever you choose, be sure to talk with your doctor. They can take into account other factors that may affect your health.
How to maintain a healthy weight
Losing weight is not easy. However, if you can maintain a healthy weight, you will improve your quality of life and reduce your risk for diseases like cancer.
Here are three important strategies:
Cut out empty calories
Empty calories are calories in foods that don't have any nutritional value. Usually your body has no choice but to store these calories as fat. For example, foods like cookies and cake contain an excess of fat and sugar, without any of the vitamins, minerals or fiber that your body needs.
Empty calories can also be found in foods that seem healthy, like whole wheat bread and yogurt. It's important to check nutrition labels and if you see added sugar, choose an alternative. To avoid empty calories, stick to whole foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean proteins. These foods will give you the fat and natural sugar you need, without the extra calories that your body will store as weight gain.
It's easier to maintain a healthy weight if you eat the right portion sizes. This can be hard to do because portions in restaurants and in packaged foods can have multiple servings. Learn the recommended serving size for common foods so you don't overeat. You can use a chart or even your hand to get the right serving size. Try not to confuse servings with portions. A portion is the number of servings you give yourself.
Stay physically active
Eating fewer calories is most effective when it comes to weight loss, but physical activity can help prevent you from gaining the weight back. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. You can split this up throughout the week, and do it in increments as short as 10 minutes.
Every minute counts. Make sure you are reaching moderate or vigorous levels by paying attention to your breath. If you can talk but not sing, you are doing moderate exercise. If you can say a few words but not hold a conversation, you are doing vigorous exercise. You should also do weight training exercises twice a week to build and maintain lean muscle mass.
Cancer Prevention Center
The Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center provides cancer risk assessment, screening and diagnostic services.
If you want to make a change in your diet but don’t know how, this advice from one of our health educators might help.
“Start slow,” says Andrea Murray, health education specialist in MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center.
Murray spends every day talking to people who want to shift toward healthier foods, so she knows what a struggle it can be.
“We want to help you reduce your risk for cancer in as many ways as possible,” Murray says. “But we want you to make changes that are realistic for you.”
Eating a healthy diet is one of the nine proven ways to reduce your risk for cancer. For Murray, the first step is to think about what’s possible for her patients.
How to switch to a healthy diet
So, what is a healthy diet? MD Anderson recommends you eat a plant-based diet. That means filling at least two-thirds of your plate with whole grains, vegetables, fruits and other plant foods like beans, nuts and seeds.
The remaining one third can be lean protein like chicken, fish or plant protein like tofu. Here are some tips you can try to make the switch easier:
Start with one small change. It’s hard to change everything at once so try adding just one extra plant food a day.
“Choose one or two things that you love,” says Murray. “Maybe you like apples. Add an extra apple a day. Maybe you like asparagus. Add that in a couple of extra times a week.”
Once you have hit that goal, you can move on to another one.
Cut back on one target item. “For some people, the challenge is cutting something out,” Murray says. “I had someone who wanted to start by cutting down soda from four drinks a week to two. That’s a great start.”
The key to sustainable change is making small changes over time. Most people who make dramatic lifestyle switches find it hard to maintain. “We all need to feel confident in what we do. If not, we can feel like we have failed and simply go back to old habits,” says Murray.
Get inspired by a new recipe. Some people have learned to enjoy plant foods by trying a new dish while out at a restaurant. Or try a new home-cooked recipe with plant foods. Once you’ve tried one you like, it may encourage you to try more.
Use plant foods for snacks. Consider extra servings of plant foods throughout the day as snacks. You could keep a handful of nuts, hummus, a piece of whole fruit or sliced veggies with you to nibble on during the day.
“I encourage people to eat these foods first when they are having sweet cravings or cravings for unhealthy foods between meals,” says Murray.
Branch out from fruit and vegetables. These are not the only plant foods available to you. It might seem less intimidating to start by adding more whole grains, nuts and seeds to your meals. Once you get going with these, you may be more inclined to eat a larger variety of plant foods including more fruits and vegetables.
Add more veggies to a sauce. Many people say they don’t like vegetables because of the texture. Don’t forget you can choose one or two vegetables to add to spaghetti sauce, salsas, salads or soups and it will boost the amount of plant foods you are eating. Finely chop vegetables and sneak them in where you might not notice them as much.
“I did this when I wanted to expand my taste for plant foods,” says Murray. “For example, I did not like the texture of mushrooms, but that changed once I started chopping them and adding to almost everything I ate.”
Remember that behavior change is hard. If you are used to very sweet or salty foods like sodas and chips, it will take time for your taste buds to adjust to healthier foods. Get support from family, friends or even a professional dietitian.
Diet change takes time and discipline so don’t give up if you have a slip. Get going again as soon as you can.
What to expect if you switch to a healthy diet
This diet will also help you maintain a healthy weight and, of course, lower your cancer risk.
You may also experience some changes in digestion. Some people find that an increase in certain plant foods causes gas or bloating. Others experience diarrhea or constipation. This is because your body may need some time to adjust to the extra fiber in your diet.
“Pay attention to your body and talk with your doctor if you have any problems,” says Murray. “Most issues can be solved with simple changes.”
Make sure you are drinking enough water and make note of any specific foods that seem to cause the issue.
“Solving the problem can be as easy as eating cooked vegetables instead of raw or introducing leafy green vegetables more slowly,” says Murray.
The most important thing is to keep making small changes to get you closer to the ideal plant-based diet.
“There is so much in plants that we can’t get from other sources. Your body benefits so much from including vegetables, fruits and whole grains in our meals,” says Murray.
If you’ve tried to lose weight, you know that often the most difficult part is keeping the pounds off over the long term.
It’s a huge challenge. One that only around 10% of dieters manage to achieve, according to our expert. The vast majority return to the same weight they were before the diet. Some return to an even heavier weight.
This cycle can lead to feelings of shame and failure. If you’ve experienced this, you might think you are simply not able to maintain a healthy weight or assume you just don’t have enough willpower.
But what if your own body is bringing you back to your old weight? This is the theory that we all have a ‘set point’ that our body returns to. And that there are a variety of systems in our body that interact to determine your body weight.
“The set point theory says that the body will settle at a specific weight where it likes to be,” says MD Anderson Senior Exercise Physiologist Carol Harrison. “And it will defend itself so that it stays at this specific weight.”
The idea of a set point is not proven beyond doubt, but it is supported in many observational studies.
“Most people will have fluctuations of several pounds around an average weight,” says Harrison.
So is the set point theory valid? And if it is, is it possible to lose weight long term?
How does the set point work?
The way your set point weight is established involves many factors and is highly individual. Experts believe your environment, genetics and preferences all play a part.
To some extent, the set point is simply what weight your body has gotten used to.
“The set point is established over a long period of time,” says Harrison. “It’s a very complex thing, but it appears that it is your body’s attempt to regulate itself, and that attempt results in a certain weight.”
If you go on a diet, your body might use the following systems to try to return to your previous weight:
Physical systems: If you suddenly cut down the calories you eat, your metabolism might slow down. This means your body uses less energy to do the same functions. The result is the food you do eat does not burn as quickly. You may lose weight in the short term, but eventually, you’ll likely start gaining weight back.
Your body also may try to push you back to the same weight by making certain changes in some hormone levels that affect your appetite and metabolism. And it may adjust the way you absorb and use nutrients.
Mental systems: Your brain gets used to the pleasurable feelings that certain foods give you. When you reduce or eliminate those foods, your body will crave new foods or drinks to fill the gaps left by your diet.
“People will find something else to give them satisfaction,” says Harrison. “It could be a couple of glasses of wine a day, or you might simply reintroduce snack foods over time without realizing it.”
These are just a few of the processes that make losing weight so challenging.
“It can be very difficult for dieters, especially in the evening. All your systems are saying, ‘I want this, I need this.’ There has to be some way to override this in order for you to succeed,” says Harrison.
All this might leave you feeling that weight loss is impossible, but Harrison says there are ways to change your set point permanently.
Can I change my set point?
The set point can be changed with two essential ingredients: time and support.
Time: If you make changes over time and lose weight gradually, your body systems can adapt to the new circumstances.
Your systems will stop trying to return you to your previous “normal” weight. Your body will slowly understand that your new lower weight is permanent and try to keep you there instead.
“Your body will adjust to the new food level,” says Harrison. “Those systems like nutrient intake, hormone levels and neurotransmitters have had a chance to make slow adaptations, so the set point of your body can change.”
Fad diets rarely give your body this chance to adapt. Instead, they result in a yo-yo effect where you swing from losing weight to gaining weight and back again.
Support: Awareness is key when you are trying to make a change. If you notice your body trying to return you to your old weight, you may be able to take action to stop it.
“Many people may need the help of a therapist in order to do this,” says Harrison. “Therapy can help you understand how you view food and your weight in a way that is more involved than, ‘should I eat this or should I not.’”
A dietitian also can help you by offering support and guidance.
If you can become aware of when you are acting on cravings and understand the reasons, it can be easier to stop.
The takeaway message is that weight loss is different for every body. As you lose weight, your body may compensate in ways that are different from other people.
That means you might have to make changes that are different from someone else.
“If you make it only about eating fewer calories and doing more exercise, you will likely miss something that could be the key to maintaining a healthy weight for you,” says Harrison.
And perhaps the most important thing is to acknowledge that you’re in this for the long haul.
“Realize that it’s complicated. Body systems are at work, not necessarily against you, but they are influencing your weight,” Harrison says.