Despite all the hype, eating a bagel is not the equivalent of smoking a cigarette.

By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
March 16, 2016
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You've probably seen headlines like "Your Bagel Will Give You Cancer" and "Carbs Are the New Cigarettes" all over the web recently.

The uproar was sparked by a recent study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention that linked lung cancer to a diet high on the glycemic index. (GI is a measure of how quickly carbohydrates trigger a rise in blood sugar levels.) Researchers from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center found that among people who had never smoked, those with the highest daily GI had a 49% increased risk of developing lung cancer compared to those with the lowest daily GI.

That's a pretty powerful link, and it's scary to think you can get lung cancer if you've never smoked. But it's important to put the findings into perspective.

The reality is that no, eating one bagel isn't as bad for you as smoking a cigarette. However, having one for breakfast several days a week is not a great idea for a number of nutritional reasons. To protect your health, your overall, consistent eating pattern matters most, not just for lung cancer, but also for other chronic diseases, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So put your focus on creating healthy dietary habits you can stick with over time. Here are four that can help you lower the risk of food-centric health problems, lung cancer and otherwise.

Don't go by GI alone

Not all high GI foods are bad, and not all low GI foods are healthy. For example, watermelon has a high GI of 72 (on a 0 to 100 scale), while ice cream can have a GI as low as 38. What you should really focus on is reducing your intake of refined, processed carbs that have been stripped of their fiber and other nutrients, regardless of the exact GI numbers. I'm talking about white rice and noodles, baked goods, candy, sugary drinks, white bread, rolls, and yes, bagels.

If you struggle with giving these foods up completely, make them occasional treats instead of daily staples. And when you do eat them, choose can't-live-without indulgences that truly feel worthwhile. In other words, splurge on a cupcake from your favorite bakery once a month, not a meh slice of grocery store cake in the office break room.

Know your nutrient-rich carbs

You don't have to go carb-free to lower your cancer risk. There are plenty of unprocessed or minimally processed options that will leave you feeling energized and nourished. My go-tos are pulses (beans, lentils, and peas), starchy veggies (spaghetti squash, yams, and roots), and whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats, and popcorn). While I advise my clients to eat these whole foods more often, there are packaged options formulated with healthier ingredients, such as Food for Life tortillas, Van's Crackers ($3; and Tolerant lentil pasta ($12; keep in mind that even with healthier options, portion size still matters.

Don't forget about good fats

Previous research has suggested that a high intake of saturated fats, red meat, and dairy products may up the risk of lung cancer. Here are a few ways to cut back on these foods by swapping them for healthier alternatives: Instead of cheese and sour cream on a taco salad, go for creamy guacamole. Make a cheeseless pizza on cauliflower crust, loaded with veggies, and topped with satisfying olive tapenade or a dairy-free pesto. Try ice creams made from plant milks, like almond or coconut. And trade burger patties for versions made with salmon or black beans.

Make produce the star of your meals

Other research has suggested that diets high in vegetables and fruit help lower lung cancer risk. The best way to cut back on carbs, boost your intake of nutrients and fiber, and slash calories is to swap the ratio of veggies to starches in your meals. For example, instead of having a pile of pasta covered with sauce, sauté two cups (the size of two tennis balls) of veggies in EVOO with garlic and Italian herb seasoning; toss the sautéed veggies with a lean protein (such as three ounces of chicken breast, extra lean ground turkey, salmon, or white beans), and a half cup (half of a tennis ball) of a healthier pasta. In other words, let carbs be the accent, rather than the main event.

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Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's Health's contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her newest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.