Inside Iowa State
May 2, 1997
Eating healthy still countsby Michelle Johnson
Most people believe that they are at the mercy of heredity and age when it comes to the risk of cancer -- not entirely true, according to Elisabeth Schafer. As much as 70 percent of cancer is related to lifestyle.
Through a new home-study course called "Taking Control," Schafer is showing people how to reduce cancer risks with a healthy diet.
"There is a lot of research showing that diet has a powerful influence on the risk for certain cancers," said Schafer, professor of food science and human nutrition. "We are teaching people how to make wise dietary choices, as well as change other health behaviors, to reduce the risk of cancer."
"Take Control" consists of a series of 15 lessons mailed to participants every two weeks. Twelve of the lessons address diet. There also are lessons on increasing physical activity, breast and testicular self-examination, and how cancer develops in the body. Schafer hopes the latter will help participants establish a connection between how the disease progresses and exactly why a healthy diet can help in prevention.
The course is available through most county extension offices and some employers, and costs $25. The next series of lessons begins in September.
After they've completed the course, Schafer hopes to see people incorporating more fruits and vegetables in their diets, especially cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts.
"Cruciferous vegetables contain a chemical compound or combination of compounds that appears to reduce cancer risk," Schafer said. "One of the goals of the course is to get people to eat these vegetables at least a couple of times a week."
For those who haven't been all that fond of vegetables, the course offers instruction on how to clean, cook and incorporate cruciferous vegetables into meals so their nutritional values aren't lost.
Schafer also hopes that participants will increase their physical activity and intake of fiber, while decreasing their dietary fat.
Change of any kind is never easy. According to Schafer, one's locus of control plays a role in the decision to make changes in diet or any other behavior, for that matter. Locus of control is a social/psychological trait through which people feel either in control or out of control of what happens during their lifetimes.
Through a questionnaire filled out at the beginning and end of the course, Schafer will measure participants' locus of control and readiness to make health-promoting changes. She also will look at what dietary changes participants actually do make as they study the lessons.
While the course is specifically designed to reduce the risk of cancer, participants may decrease significantly their risk of other ailments, such as heart disease. Healthy diet and regular exercise are the typical prescription for the prevention of most health problems, Schafer said.
"The course isn't a guarantee -- there are so many uncontrollable factors that contribute to cancer," Schafer said. "Diet, however, isn't one of them. We can choose what we eat."
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