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Traditional diet appears to lower risk of cancer

<i>Editors’ note: In this column, Roberta Cahill of the American Cancer Society reveals new findings from a nationwide food survey and discusses Native American diet and cancer rates. Cahill is Yankton Sioux and lives in South Dakota. Her work focuses on cancer awareness and education to diverse populations.</i>

Charlotte Hoefer: What are the foods America craves?

Roberta Cahill: According to a new national survey by the American Cancer Society, more than half of Americans report having a food they crave, and the nation’s top five irresistible foods are: chocolate (20 percent), pizza/pasta/Italian food (14 percent), cookies/cake/muffins (10 percent), hamburgers/beef/meat (9 percent), and fish/shellfish/seafood (9 percent).

Hoefer: Do we have to give up the foods we love?

Cahill: No. It’s OK to eat your favorite foods – but the American Cancer Society recommends you limit portion sizes and maintain a healthy weight. The survey was done as part of the American Cancer Society’s new 2006 “Great American Eat Right Challenge” to draw attention to the link between being overweight and cancer risk. The fact is one-third of cancers can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, getting exercise and not smoking.

Hoefer: Are Americans generally aware of the link between obesity and cancer?

Cahill: No. Our survey found that Americans are dangerously unaware of the link between overweight and cancer risk. We found that while most people know there’s a connection between obesity and heart disease, only 1 in 10 recognize the link to cancer. And being overweight is a risk factor for many forms of cancer. The challenge is to be smart about food choices – eat healthy foods, watch portion size, especially those foods high in fats, sugar or calories. Our message is moderation, not deprivation.

Hoefer: Have there been any studies linking the consumption of Native American traditional foods and lower incidences of cancers?

Cahill: Part of the traditional Native American diet includes beans, peas, lentils and peanuts. This food group has been of interest in cancer research because these foods contain dietary fiber, folic acid, isoflavones and other compounds that have been shown to inhibit carcinogenesis in animal studies. A comprehensive review of these foods in the late 1990s concluded that the literature was too limited and that more research is needed. However, based on what we know currently about the nutritious value of these foods, they comprise a healthy, plant-based diet.

Dark green leafy vegetables and deep yellow vegetables such as squash – another staple of the traditional Native diet – are high in carotenoids and other compounds that are thought to reduce the risk of cancer by their antioxidant and cancer preventive properties. In 1997, it was determined that carotenoids probably reduce lung cancer risk and possibly reduce the risk of cancers of the esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum, breast and cervix. Supplemental sources of these compounds have not been proven to have benefit, therefore consumption of foods rich in these nutrients is recommended.

Hoefer: What are some healthy recipes that utilize traditional Native foods (corn, beans and squash predominantly)?

Cahill: The following recipes were compiled by the USDA Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and are included in the cookbook, “A River of Recipes,” a collection of American Indian recipes from tribes across North America:

<b>Blue Corn Pan Bread </b>

3 cups water

2 cups blue cornmeal (yellow may be used)

1 cup yellow cornmeal

3/4 cup raisins

1/2 cup sprouted wheat

1/3 cup brown sugar

To sprout wheat: Wash untreated wheat grains; drain but do not dry. Spread in a single layer in shallow pans and cover with damp cloths. Keep damp in a warm, dark place.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line an 8- by 8-inch cake pan with foil.

Bring water to boil in a large pot. Add each ingredient, one at a time. Stir well until mixture is smooth and pour into foil-lined cake pan. Cover with a piece of foil. Bake for 2 hours. Bread is done when toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Makes 12 servings.

(Recipe provided by

<b>Squash Casserole</b>

1 medium onion, chopped

1 stalk celery, diced

12 ounces cooked chicken or turkey, cubed

2 tablespoons margarine or vegetable oil

3 cups seasoned stuffing mix

1 cup chicken broth

1 cup low-fat sour cream

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2 tablespoons egg mix plus 1/4 cup water (or 1 egg, beaten)

1-1/2 pounds summer squash, sliced

Nonstick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brown onion, celery and chicken in margarine or oil until vegetables are slightly tender. Set aside.

Combine stuffing mix, chicken broth, sour cream and egg. Add squash and chicken mixture to stuffing mixture. Pour into 2-quart baking dish coated with nonstick cooking spray. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 – 40 minutes or until bubbly. Makes 6 servings.

(Recipe provided by Denelle Martin and Nancy Patterson, Gila River Indian Community FDP, Sacaton, Ariz.)

<b>Vegetable Salad</b>

3/4 cup vinegar

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon water

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup celery, diced

1 cup green pepper, diced

1 cup onion, diced

1 15.5-ounce can corn, drained

1 15.5-ounce can peas, drained

1 small jar pimentos, drained

Boil the vinegar, salad oil, sugar, water, salt and pepper for 1 minute. Cool. Pour over the vegetables and pimientos. Refrigerate at least two hours to allow flavors to blend. Makes 14 servings.

(Recipe provided by Agnes Rich Snyder, Nez Perce, Nezperce, Idaho)

For more recipes like this, visit:

Hoefer: What about the cancer prognosis rates for Native Americans if they are diagnosed with cancer?

Cahill: Unfortunately, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a less favorable prognosis once they receive a cancer diagnosis, compared to that of the general population. The reasons may include such factors as later stage of the disease when diagnosed, the lack of available screening services in their area and lack of appropriate care; and sometimes they have to travel long distances just to get to treatment centers.

Hoefer: Do cancer mortality rates in Native Americans vary by region?

Cahill: Yes, we see much higher mortality rates in the northern Plains and Alaska, for example, than in the Southwest. This is due in part to the higher smoking prevalence in these areas.

Hoefer: How can the American Cancer Society Web site help people control their weight?

Cahill: We’ve added great new interactive tools to the Web site, to help consumers control weight and learn healthy habits in nutrition and exercise. You can calculate your Body Mass Index on the Web site to determine whether you are at a healthy weight. There’s a healthy eating quiz, a personal trainer on video, a calorie counter and more great healthy recipes – like Lemon Garlic Broiled Shrimp or Creamy Chocolate Cheesecake! The American Cancer Society Great American Eat Right Challenge Web site is at www.

Hoefer: What else did the survey data show? Do women crave one food, and men another?

Cahill: Yes. Women prefer chocolate; men want pizza. Here’s another interesting point – we asked people if they knew their BMI score. We found that only 17 percent of respondents knew their BMI score, but a whopping 65 percent could tell you the number of judges on “American Idol”!

So we have more work ahead – among all races – in educating consumers on the link between obesity and cancer. For more information on healthy eating tips, go to or call the American Cancer Society at (800) ACS-2345.

<i>The American Cancer Society is dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem by saving lives, diminishing suffering and preventing cancer through research, advocacy and service. Founded in 1913 and with national headquarters in Atlanta, the society has 13 regional divisions and local offices in 3,400 communities, involving millions of volunteers across the United States. For more information any time, call (800) ACS-2345 or visit