The New American Plate

Misconceptions about food and eating habits that cause cancer abound. How can operators steer customers in the right direction?

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease. If you reach age 40, your risk of cancer in the next 20 years is one in 11. If you reach age 60, your 20- year risk rises to one-in-five for women and one-in-three for men. You can’t prevent old age or change genetics, but some other risk factors for cancer are preventable. These include obesity, poor diet, inactivity, alcohol intake, smoking and sun exposure.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) reports 30% to 40% of all cancers can be prevented by changing the way we eat (e.g., to a plant-based diet) and exercising. In addition, not smoking decreases cancer risk by 60% to 70%. AICR estimates eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily may prevent at least 20% of all cancers.

No single food (e.g., tea, flaxseed, soy, tomatoes, broccoli) or nutrient has been proven to prevent cancer in humans. Despite several scientific studies linking tea consumption to reduced cancer risk, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in July proclaimed, “There is no solid evidence to prove drinking green tea helps prevent any type of cancer.” More large-scale, long-term controlled studies are needed.

What people know: In 2003, a survey by AICR of 1,000 people found many Americans are misinformed about what causes and prevents cancer. For example:

  • Over 65% thought pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables cause cancer, and 50% believed food additives are responsible. (There is no scientific proof in either case.)
  • Under half knew diets low in fruits and vegetables increase cancer risk (e.g., stomach, lung, prostate, colon, rectum, pancreas, breast, bladder, esophagus).
  • Only two-in-five knew high-fat diets raise cancer risk (e.g. lung, colon, prostate, skin). 
  • Approximately 45% knew obesity increases cancer risk (e.g., breast, colon, kidney, prostate).

Since 2004, AICR has recommended a new approach to eating for better health and reducing risk for chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. It is called the “new American plate” and focuses on weight control. The guide is based on a variety of plant foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds) covering two-thirds or more of the plate at all meals. Animal protein (e.g., fish, skinless poultry, meat and low-fat dairy ) covers one-third or less.

Plant foods are low in calories (and thus promote weight loss) and rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (natural plant substances that may protect us from cancer and other diseases; see chart). Red meat should be lean (e.g., sirloin, loin or round) and limited to only three ounces cooked (or four ounces raw) per day—the size of a deck of cards. Small amounts of meat can be combined with vegetables and whole grains (e.g., brown rice, kasha, whole wheat pasta) in stews, soups and casseroles. For weight control, serve standard servings (leaning toward small portions).

AICR guidelines: Here are five guidelines from AICR you can pass on to customers to advise them about reducing risk of cancer:

1. Choose a diet rich in a variety of plant-based foods. Include at least seven servings of legumes (dried beans and peas) and whole grains daily.

2. Eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruits daily. Include citrus fruits and dark green, leafy and deep orange vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower may help protect against breast, gastrointestinal and respiratory cancers.

3. Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active (one hour daily of brisk activity and one hour a week of vigorous exercise).

4. Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all (one drink a day for women and two a day for men.)

5. Select foods low in fat and salt. Choose foods that are cooked with herbs and spices, which contain phytochemicals. Limit processed, cured and smoked foods. Focus on low-fat or non-fat dairy foods rich in calcium, which may promote weight loss and normal blood pressure and reduce risk for colon cancer and osteoporosis. Select fish often, especially fatty fish like salmon and tuna (rich in omega-3 fats which may protect against cancer). Limit animal (saturated) fat like red meat. Use monounsaturated vegetable oils (e.g., canola, olive) sparingly.

Cooking tips: When meats (especially fatty meats), poultry or fish are cooked at high temperatures (e.g., charbroiled, pan-fried, grilled) or over direct heat, cancer-causing compounds (carcinogens) are formed. To reduce cancer risk, use low-heat methods like baking, braising, poaching, roasting, stir-frying, steaming or stewing.

Follow these six tips to reduce cooking time, fat drippings and carcinogens when grilling:

  • Remove poultry skin, and trim fat. 
  • Marinate foods before grilling. Use one-half cup marinade per pound.
  • Cook small pieces of meat (e.g., kebobs on skewers). Don’t burn foods.
  • Flip foods often.
  • Wrap food in tin foil, or use a drip pan to avoid direct heat exposure.
  • Precook foods in a conventional or microwave oven before grilling.

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