Dance Health

A Dietitian’s Top 10 Tips for Lowering Cancer Risk

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD

1. Eat more vegetables

I can’t stress the importance of this strongly enough.  Aim for at least 4 servings per day, and the more colorful your selection the better.  Vegetables contain important bioactive compounds such as phytonutrients like polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids and lycopene. These are powerful cancer fighters.  Dancers can’t go wrong with eating more vegetables. Veggies are low calorie, low fat, high in fiber, and high in vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, folic acid and selenium.

2. Eat more fruits

Fruits also contain the cancer fighting phytonutrients listed above. Fruit is the ultimate convenience snack. It is easily portable, tasty, and many varieties don’t need refrigeration. Throw an apple or orange in your dance bag today. Keep a bowl of washed grapes in your fridge for healthy snacking when you want something quick.  Fruit is delicious, easy, low calorie and packed with nutrients. Try to get your fruit from the whole fruit and limit or avoid sugary juices.

3. Reduce your consumption of meat

Eating a plant based diet has been shown again and again to reduce risk for cancers, not to mention the risk of heart disease and diabetes. The American Dietetic Association states that vegetarian diets can be healthy for persons of all ages and activity levels and may prevent certain diseases.   It is entirely possible to eat a more plant based diet if you are a dancer or other athlete. Get important nutrients like protein, iron and zinc from a well varied diet that includes beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and vegetables.  Dancers need slightly more protein and iron, but high meat intakes and excessive heme iron (from meat) may actually increase cancer risk.  Beans and leafy greens contain iron and these foods help fight cancer.  If you are a vegan you will need to supplement your diet with B12. Plant based diets also help reduce greenhouse gases and are better for the environment.  If you are interested, talk to a registered dietician about planning well balanced plant based meals.

4. Stop smoking now!

Seriously, enough said.  Not smoking is one of the single most important things you can do for your health and the health of those who breathe the air around you.

5. Lose the extra pounds if you are overweight

Excess weight is a major risk factor for many different cancers.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently reported that putting on weight when younger (in your 20s or 30s) as opposed to later in life can increase risk for endometrial cancer.  Preventing or delaying weight gain can pay off in lower cancer risk.  Meeting with a registered dietitian can help you develop a plan that you can stick to long term. It’s not about losing a few pounds quickly, real health comes from lifestyle changes that you can live with over time.  Start off by limiting portion sizes and eating more veggies, then gradually add more steps until you reach your goals.

6. Eat more naturally and limit processed foods

I know we are all busy, but dancers have to be judicious about what they feed their bodies. Processed foods (including soft drinks) are not only more expensive, but usually pack a high calorie punch.  They can contain preservatives, additives, high-fructose corn syrup, and other unhealthy stuff that dancers don’t need. Buy foods in bulk, make big portions when cooking and freeze the extra. Invest in a slow cooker so you can throw some ingredients in and it will be all ready when you come home from a long day.

7. Get adequate vitamin D, but don’t mega dose

As dancers we all know the importance of vitamin D in strong bone density (preventing stress fractures). But you may not know that vitamin D has been shown to also be cancer protective.  For the dancers that I work with, I typically recommend getting approximately 800 IU per day.  That may mean having to supplement for dancers who are avoiding dairy. Getting 10-15 minutes of sun can be a good source too, but of course we don’t want to increase our skin cancer risk by baking in the sun for too long. If you supplement, be careful not to mega dose. Vitamin D can be toxic in high amounts.

8. Exercise regularly

Most dancers get plenty of exercise, but if you are recovering from an injury or if you are a former dancer it helps to schedule exercise just like you would schedule anything else.  Try something new or out of your comfort zone like a different style of dance, martial arts, yoga, or rock climbing. If you are currently dancing regularly; swimming or pilates can be great activities for cross training on days off.

9. Limit alcoholic beverages

New reports from the US National Institutes of Health state that women who have one drink per day can increase their breast cancer risk by 5%. Heavier drinking can increase risk by as much as 50%. Women who have a strong family history of breast cancer should avoid drinking altogether.  Another consideration for dancers is that even one drink can negatively affect athletic performance for several days after consumption.

10. Avoid BPA in canned foods and plastic containers, and don’t microwave food in plastic

BPA is a building block of plastics and exposure (especially in children) may increase cancer risk.  BPA can be found in some plastic containers and in the lining inside cans. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, The Environmental Working Group, and the Harvard School of Public Health all warn of the dangers of exposure to BPA. Try using glass containers to store food, or look for “BPA free” if you must use plastic. We can all benefit from less plastic in our lives.  Plus eating fresh is always better.

Emily Harrison
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at

Sources and additional information can be found at:

Alcohol and cancer risk:


The Environmental Working Group:

Plant based diets and disease prevention: The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Scarborough P, Allender S, Clarke D, Wickramasinghe K, Rayner M.  Plant based diets and the environment: Modelling the health impact of environmentally sustainable dietary scenarios in the UK. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012 Apr 11

Campbell T C, Campbell TM.  The China Study. Ben Bella Books, 2009.

ADA position statement on vegetarian diets:

Murphy MM, Barraj LM, Herman, D, Xiaoyu BI, Cheatham R, Randolph RK. Phytonutrient intake by adults in the United States in relation to fruit and vegetable consumption.  Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Feb, 2012.

Link A, Balaguer F, Goel A. Cancer chemoprevention by dietary polyphenols: promising role for epigenetics. Biochem Pharmacol. 2010 Dec 15;80(12):1771-92

Krishnan AV, Trump DL, Johnson CS, Feldman D.The role of vitamin d in cancer prevention and treatment. Rheum Dis Clin North Am. 2012 Feb;38(1):161-78.

Photo: © Braden Gunem |


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