Staying lean throughout your life is one of the most important things you can do to stay cancer free, according to a groundbreaking report on cancer prevention by the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR). Aim for a body mass index (BMI) in the range of 21 to 23 (calculate yours at familycircle.com/bmi). "Any weight gain after age 18 (excluding pregnancy) is mostly fat," says Walter Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. And excess body fat produces unhealthy hormone levels and releases inflammatory proteins into the bloodstream that can influence cell growth, upping the risk of cancer of the esophagus, colon, rectum, endometrium, gallbladder, liver, pancreas, and kidneys. Weight gain after menopause is particularly dangerous: Your risk of breast cancer increases by about 10% with every 11 pounds you tack on to your frame.
If your BMI is more than 23, work on losing 5% of your body weight in the next six months, Dr. Willett advises. If you weigh 160 pounds, that's just 8 pounds. Once you achieve that goal, then go for another 5%. Come as close as you can to your ideal BMI. Seem too ambitious? Then at least hold steady. "Even just losing that initial 5% and keeping it off will reduce your cancer risk," Dr. Willett says.
If you're at a healthy BMI now, keep close tabs on your weight. If it starts to creep up (a 5-pound jump is Dr. Willett's red flag), stop gaining more and take steps to lose. Concentrate on eating foods that are low in energy density, such as whole-grain breads and cereals, as well as fruits and vegetables. These foods are bulky but low in fat, so you'll fill up on fewer calories and won't feel deprived. Also, monitor the calories you drink. Research cites sugary, calorie-laden beverages such as non-diet sodas and juice-flavored drinks as a major contributor to weight gain. That's because they're not satiating. Your brain constantly tracks the number of calories you consume so that you usually know when to put down your fork. But about 30% of liquid calories can slide in under your brain's monitoring radar.