7 science-backed lifestyle changes that help reduce the risk of cancer

A new study from the UK’s Newcastle University tested common and well-known cancer-reducing recommendations. A study published in November in BMC Medicine attempted to confirm 10 cancer reduction guidelines published in 2018 by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

Dr. Eugene Kwan from Hong Kong says that studies have shown the significant effect of regular exercise in the prevention of several cancers. Photo: Dr. Eugene Kwan
Researchers tested these guidelines on 94,778 British adults with an average age of 56. They found that the better adherence to cancer prevention recommendations that encourage healthy lifestyles, the lower the risk of all cancers. some individual cancers, such as diseases of the breast, intestines, kidneys, esophagus, ovaries, liver and gall bladder. For some, the risk was reduced by 30 percent.

What are the 2018 WCRF/AICR recommendations for cancer prevention? And how can you make them part of your healthy lifestyle? Here’s what we found out:

1. Be a healthy weight

Keep your weight as low as possible in a healthy range throughout your life and avoid weight gain (as measured by body weight or waist circumference) throughout adulthood.

To achieve a long and healthy life, eat, sleep, feel and exercise right

BMI, or body mass indexcalculates how much body fat you have based on your weight and height, and is measured by using your weight in kilograms (or pounds) divided by the square of your height in meters (or feet).

A BMI of 20-25 is considered healthy for most adults.

Keep your weight as low as possible in a healthy range throughout your life to reduce your risk of cancer. Photo: Shutterstock

2. Be physically active

Dr. Eugene Kwan, a family physician in central Hong Kong, says studies have shown the significant effect of regular exercise in the prevention of several cancers, especially breast and colon cancer.

He explains how physical activity can have protective effects.

How short bouts of exercise can protect against cancer and heart disease

It can help with weight management and reduce the risk of obesity, a known risk factor for some cancers.

It can also strengthen immune systemhelping it detect and destroy early cancer cells before they can grow and spread, and enhance the production and activation of natural cancer-killing cells.

Regular physical activity can help regulate hormone levels, such as estrogen and insulin, Kwan adds.

Dr. Anna Herby is a nutritionist and nutrition education expert at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in the United States

Higher estrogen levels have been linked to an increased risk of breast and endometrial cancers. Regular exercise lowers the amount of circulating estrogen, which reduces the risk of hormone-dependent cancers.

In addition, exercise can improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of insulin-related cancers, such as colon and pancreatic cancer, Kwan says.

Physical activity also maintains the health of the digestive tract, he adds, reducing the contact time of potential carcinogens in our colon and lowering the risk of colorectal cancer.

Finally, physical activity has anti-inflammatory effects; chronic inflammation is associated with a higher risk of cancer.

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3. Eat a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans

These foods are key elements of a whole-food, plant-based diet that can be effective in reducing cancer risk, says Dr. Anna Herby, a nutritionist and nutrition education expert at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in the United States.

By focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumesyou significantly increase your intake of antioxidants, which help your body neutralize cancer-causing free radicals, he explains.

Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage) are especially effective in helping your body fight cancer cells.

The food’s high fiber content helps eliminate excess hormones associated with breast and prostate cancer, and in the case of colon cancer, fiber reduces the ability of cancer compounds to contact the cells lining our digestive tract, he adds.

If you want, you can ignore the snack food aisle and limit your consumption of fast food and processed foods high in fat, starch or sugar. Photo: Shutterstock

4. Limit consumption of fast food and other processed foods high in fat, starch or sugar

These include many convenience foods, snacks, bakery products, and desserts and sweets.

Herby says such foods are often low in nutrients and high in calories, leading to weight gain, which can increase cancer risk. These foods can also contain additives and chemicals not naturally found in whole foods that can interfere with our health.

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5. Limit consumption of red and processed meat

The WCRF and AICR recommend eating no more than three servings of red meat, such as beef, pork or lamb, per week. This equates to about 350-500g (about 12-18oz) of cooked red meat. The guidelines also say that you should eat little, if any, processed meat.

Herby says red and processed meat are some of the foods most associated with an increased risk of cancer.

6. Limit the use of drinks sweetened with sugar

To reduce the risk of cancer, choose water instead of alcohol or sugar-sweetened drinks. Photo: Shutterstock

These include many soft drinks, energy drinks and juices with added sugar. Instead, use mostly water and unsweetened beverages.

7. Limit alcohol consumption

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning it has the highest risk of causing cancer alongside substances like asbestos, radiation and tobacco, Kwan says.

The connection between alcohol consumption and different types of cancer is well established, he says. It is a risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, breast and gastrointestinal tract.

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It’s worth noting that all kinds of alcohol increase the risk of getting cancer, he adds.

And although the risk increases at a higher level alcohol consumption, even moderate or low levels have been associated with increased risk. Therefore, any alcohol consumption increases the likelihood of developing certain cancers.

Although stopping or reducing alcohol consumption does not immediately lead to a reduction in cancer risk, over time the risk gradually decreases.

8. Do not use supplements to prevent cancer

High-dose dietary supplements are not recommended for cancer prevention. Try to meet your nutritional needs with diet alone.

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9. To the mother: breastfeed your baby if you can

Breastfeeding is good for both mother and baby. This recommendation is in line with World Health Organization advice, which recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for six months and thereafter until two years of age or beyond, with appropriate complementary foods.

10. After a cancer diagnosis, follow the recommendations if you can

Check with your healthcare professional what is right for you, the instructions say.

Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans dominate a whole-food plant-based diet, which can be effective in reducing cancer risk. Photo: Shutterstock

Newcastle will study the results

The Newcastle researchers excluded cancer-fighting supplements and advice to avoid breastfeeding because there was insufficient data on these categories. The study did not include people who had a cancer diagnosis at the beginning, so the 10th guideline was also left out.

Participants were scored based on their adherence to the top seven recommendations. The average score was 3.8/7. During the study, 7,296 participants (8 percent) developed cancer.

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For each recommendation followed, participants reduced their cancer risk by seven percent. In addition, each one-point increase in engagement scores was associated with:

  • 10 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer

  • 10 percent lower risk of colon cancer

  • 18 percent lower risk of developing kidney cancer

  • 16 percent lower risk of developing esophageal cancer

  • 22 percent lower risk of developing liver cancer

  • 30 percent lower risk of developing gallbladder cancer

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