Cancer and cuisine: What you need to know about eating well

January 15, 2014 | by

Eat healthy. Be active.

Cancer and nutrition

When it comes to cancer risk, food matters. Our experts explain the connection.

Those are two pieces of advice that Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D., R.N., professor and director of City of Hope’s Division of Cancer Etiology, will likely share – and emphasize – at a Jan. 28 Ask the Experts lecture titled "Cancer and Cuisine." (Another "Cancer and Cuisine" event will be held Jan. 25 at the newly opened City of Hope | Antelope Valley clinic in Lancaster, Calif.)

Bernstein is the principal investigator of the California Teachers Study, which has tracked more than 133,000 participants since 1995 to assess whether certain behaviors are linked to cancer and other diseases. In other words, Bernstein knows a bit about cancer risk.

At the Ask the Experts lecture, held on the City of Hope campus in Duarte, she'll provide details on why healthy eating and exercise matter – and how scientists know that they do.

But that's just for starters. Tender Greens sous chef Junior Perez will then prepare a healthy dish and share the importance of the ingredients in the dish.

Here, Bernstein and Prez give some insight into their backgrounds and what they’ll be speaking about on Jan. 28.

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First, an interview with Leslie Bernstein:

In conducting studies and research on cancer risk and prevention, what do you find most interesting about what you do?

Leslie Bernstein

Leslie Bernstein knows a thing or two about cancer risk. She's director of the division of cancer etiology at City of Hope and will soon be explaining the role good nutrition plays in reducing cancer risk.

In searching for risk factors for cancer, it is the challenge of solving a complex puzzle of how our knowledge of physiology, genetics, and lifestyle risk factors work together to influence cancer risk that interests me.

Much of the research done in my division utilizes a large cohort study of 133,479 women, the California Teachers Study, which I and several colleagues started in 1995. We have collected information and DNA from these women five times over the past 18 years so we can evaluate the effect of genetics on cancer risk.  So, it is always exciting to think about what is the best way to get an answer to a question and not introduce bias or errors into the study, to work with the women in our studies and keep them informed of what their contributions have meant once we have the results, and of course, finding out whether our theories might be right.

A lot of people try to start off the new year on a healthy note. What would be your top recommendations to help lower cancer risks?

Number one on any list is “do not smoke.”

Other recommendations are:

1.    Eat a healthy diet. Reduce the amount of fat and sugar in your diet. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, particularly fresh, uncooked fruit and vegetables. Aim to minimize red or pink meats in your diet, replacing them with poultry or fish.
2.    Exercise regularly. Exercise three to four hours a week. Strenuous walking is beneficial, too.
3.    Watch your weight, and try not to gain weight. Try to reduce the number of calories you eat. That’s all that is needed in a diet.
4.    Minimize alcohol intake. In general I would say drink no more than one glass of wine, beer or hard liquor drink a day. I do not mean you can drink seven drinks on one day and none on the other days!

As an advocate for living a healthy and active lifestyle, what do you incorporate into your daily routine to stay healthy?

I am getting quite old, and so after a 10 to 14 hour day, I have little time to do the required exercise that I should be doing. On weekends I do try to get in long, fast, uphill (and of course then downhill) walks in my neighborhood. I walk everywhere I can during the day. On our City of Hope campus, I usually get a mile walk in each day, running between meetings.

I follow my own advice as it pertains to diet (with the exception of curbing sugar foods – I love granola bars and candy bars that help me get an energy spurt in the late afternoon). I have not eaten red or pink meats since 1979. Gradually I brought back fish, chicken and then turkey, but in small amounts. I generally restrict my diet to having fish or chicken only two times a week, otherwise you’ll find me eating nuts, beans, yogurt, peanut butter and, of course, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. I rarely drink alcohol and I do not smoke.

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Next, an interview with sous chef Junior Perez:

Briefly describe why you decided to become a chef? (Specifically, a “healthy” chef.)

Chef Junior Perez

Junior Perez, sous chef at Tender Greens Hollywood, knows the importance of eating good foods. Think of it not just as a health issue, but as a quality-of-life issue.

I decided to become a chef when I was 16 years old. I was always helping my grandma and mom in the kitchen, and it interested me. I had so many questions and wanted to learn about food, where it came from and the different ways to cook it.

After my own personal health scare and weight issues, I had to transform my lifestyle and eating habits in order to be healthy. Working at Tender Greens gives me a great appreciation for good, whole foods and what wellness means. Healthy food doesn't have to be bland, tasteless and leave you hungry. Real food, whole foods can be delicious and satisfying, too.

What types of foods do you like to cook with and why?

When I first started cooking, I worked in French and Italian kitchens, where we worked with whole animals and really focused on the technique. I enjoy working with the whole animal because we get to use every part; nothing goes to waste. There are so many different cuts, textures and ways to prepare meat. For example, sous vide versus grilling.

What do you enjoy most about your profession and what inspires you to do what you do?

The part I enjoy most is seeing the reaction people have when they eat my food. It makes me happy to see them smiling and enjoying what I've prepared for them.

On Jan. 28, can you give a hint at what you’ll be cooking up?

We'll be working with some ancient grains. They're great because they're healthy, but add substance to your meal so you'll feel full and satisfied.

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Reserve your seat by signing up for the Jan. 28 Ask the Experts lecture: "Cancer and Cuisine," to be held on our Duarte campus from 6 to 7:30 p.m. You can also watch the Jan. 28 "Cancer and Cuisine" lecture live  on our YouTube channel.

Or you can sign up for our Jan. 25 "Cancer and Nutrition" lecture, to be held in Antelope Valley beginning at 10 a.m. That lecture will be preceded and followed by blood pressure screenings and body mass index measurements beginning at 9 a.m.; the event concludes at 12:30 p.m.

That lecture will feature Vijay Trisal, M.D., medical director of community practices for the City of Hope Medical Foundation, and Katja Wargin, a certified holistic health counselor. Read an interview with Trisal and Wargin.

Visit cityofhope.org/ask-the-experts for more details.