Those extra pounds that keep you from fitting into a favorite dress or suit don’t just affect what you can wear. They contribute to an increased risk of getting and dying of cancer. In fact, the evidence suggests we could cut cancer rates by 30 percent just by everyone exercising more and eating less.

The good news is it’s never too late to work toward a healthier body weight. Even after a cancer diagnosis, losing weight can help increase the chance of survival, says Tara A. Mardigan, a nutritionist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Still, she cautions patients working toward that goal to focus more on eating an overall healthy diet than on the number on the scale.

“We see patients who are obese or overweight, and during cancer treatment some of them say to us, ‘The only good thing [about having cancer] is now I’ll actually be able to lose weight,’ and we try and nip that in the bud,” says Mardigan. “It’s much better to maintain weight or lose only a few pounds and to be getting proper nutrition during treatment.”

Spinach, Walnut and Fruit Salad With Chicken

Try this tasty and healthy salad to help you get started.

Makes four 8-ounce portions

  • 12 oz. skinless, boneless chicken breast
  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • 8 cups fresh spinach
  • 1 orange
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 4 dried apricot halves
  • 8 tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette

Heat a medium-sized nonstick skillet over medium heat. Spray with cooking spray, wait for a few seconds, then add the chicken breast. Cook chicken thoroughly (until there is no pink). Remove skillet from heat. Slice chicken into strips.

In a large salad bowl, add spinach, cranberries, feta and walnuts.

Peel orange and cut into one-inch cubes. Add to ingredients in salad bowl.

Cut dried apricots into small pieces, similar in size to cranberries.

Lightly toss all ingredients in the salad bowl.

Place sliced chicken (warm or chilled) over the top.

Serve immediately.

Recipe courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Visit the Dana-Farber website for more healthy recipes.

Mardigan recommends that people who could benefit from losing weight make an overall lifestyle change by eating nutrient-dense foods, such as nuts, seeds and beans, and by choosing a plant-rich diet that substitutes whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables for less healthy fare. Watching how much of them you eat is important too.

“First settle on making a change and trying to improve your food choices, like switching from french fries to sweet potato fries,” she says. “The next step is becoming aware of your portion control.”

Mardigan stresses that when it comes to losing weight, it’s also best to go slow and aim for one or two pounds a week. “Don’t get discouraged if the pounds take time to come off,” she says. “It doesn’t have to happen immediately.”