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updated 1/6/2006 1:24:26 PM ET 2006-01-06T18:24:26

If you could make just one change in your lifestyle or diet to lower your risk of cancer and improve your overall health, what would you choose? Here’s what some of today’s prominent nutrition researchers recommend as healthy New Year resolutions with major impact.

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Exercise is one of the top picks.

Make regular physical activity part of your daily routine, urges Richard Rivlin, M.D., Professor of Medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., Professor at Duke University Medical Center, says people should work out at least 30 minutes most days. People who exercise are at much lower risk for breast cancer and colon cancer compared to sedentary people, she points out. David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., Professor and Director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, suggests starting the day with 30 to 60 minutes of exercise.

Although you may have difficulty adjusting to this schedule, some surveys show that people who exercise in the morning are less likely to have their exercise plans pushed aside by other demands.

Besides lowering cancer risk, regular exercise is a key factor in weight control. Striving for a healthy weight and maintaining it through life is one of the most frequent recommendations heard from researchers. Overweight increases the risk of many kinds of cancer, according to Dr. Rivlin.

“For people diagnosed with cancer, there is growing evidence that weight management may play an important role in preventing recurrence and improving the odds of survival,” notes Dr. Demark-Wahnefried.

Tea and portion control
Other actions besides regular exercise can make long-term weight control possible. Replacing higher-calorie drinks like soda with lower-calorie drinks like tea is a strategy recommended by Richard Mattes, Ph.D., R.D., Professor of Nutrition at Purdue University. His research shows that we don’t compensate for the calories in beverages by eating less. Beverage calories increase our total calorie consumption without decreasing our hunger.

Reducing large portions is a weight control strategy recommended by Dr. Demark-Wahnefried. If you don’t control your portion size, research suggests that even a lowfat diet with lots of vegetables and fruit could fail to produce weight loss.

Another possible choice from Dr. Rivlin and Dr. Demark-Wahnefried for weight control is following an eating pattern that is low in calories and high in nutrients. This eating style focuses on vegetables and fruits, which provide many nutrients with few calories.

Vegetables and fruits also help prevent cancer, even if you don’t need them for weight control. Eat more than eight fruits and vegetables a day, urges Nagi Kumar, Ph.D., R.D., Director of the Department of Nutrition at the Moffitt Cancer Center at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. She emphasizes that fruits and vegetables contain valuable plant chemicals called phytochemicals that help prevent several cancers and other chronic diseases.

“The data on the relationship between fruit and vegetable intake and cancer prevention has been consistent over the past two decades,” Dr. Kumar says.

Dr. Heber agrees. He advises eating vegetables and fruits in a variety of colors each day for a wide range of protective substances.

Other lifestyle steps also make excellent choices for a healthy resolution because they can substantially lower your risk of cancer. “Never use tobacco in any form,” declares Dr. Rivlin. It raises the risk of emphysema and heart disease, too. Make sure you follow current cancer screening guidelines, insists Jon Story, Ph.D., Professor of Foods and Nutrition at Purdue University. Dr. Story’s other recommendation relates to dieting. Extreme diets are never a good choice, he says, because only moderation and variety provide good nutritional balance.

His mantra: Moderation, not martyrdom.

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