According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), one third of the most common cancers could be prevented by following lifestyle recommendations, and a 2008 review published in Pharmaceutical Research estimates 90 to 95 percent of all cancer diagnoses have roots in diet and lifestyle factors. Bottom line: There are many variables within your control that can help reduce your risk of developing cancer. The AICR outlines three overarching goals that can help reduce your chances of a cancer diagnosis: Choose mostly nutrient-dense, plant foods; be physically active every day; and aim for a healthy weight. The guidelines for cancer prevention are the same for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, so making healthy lifestyle changes can help prevent some of the most common causes of death in the United States. Read on to learn about 10 research-supported strategies you can start right now to lower your risk of cancer.
1. Eat More Plants
Prevention guidelines state that consuming a healthy diet with emphasis on plant foods is critical for cancer prevention. This recommendation embodies another major guideline, choosing foods that help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, as plant-based diets are associated with better weight management. Studies have shown that eating a variety of fresh produce and whole grains is associated with a decreased risk of developing some types of cancer likely related to their offerings of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. In fact, fruits, vegetables and fiber-containing plant-based products have earned a Food and Drug Administration-approved health claim for their association with reducing risk of cancer. To lower your risk, add more plants to your diet: Include vegetarian dishes into your weekly routine and choose a variety of produce daily.
2. Get Your Z’s
Lack of sleep or sleep disturbance can cause shifts in hormones and stress the entire system. Skimping on shut-eye has been linked to hormonal problems leading to weight gain, and now a 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine has shown a positive association between sleep disturbance from moderate to severe sleep apnea and cancer incidence. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified the “shift leading to a disruption of circadian rhythm as probably carcinogenic to humans.” When the circadian rhythm is disrupted in rotating-shift workers or people who work at night, hormonal shifts in melatonin have been studied in relation to incidence of certain types of cancers. To reduce your risk of cancer through sleep care, adults should aim for seven to nine hours per night and address sleep apnea with your doctor if this is an issue.
3. Keep a Healthy Body Weight
A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that being overweight or obese may contribute to up to 20 percent of all cancer-related deaths. Being overweight or obese (a BMI of 25 or greater) is strongly associated with specific types of cancer, including breast (postmenopausal), colon and rectum, kidney, esophagus, pancreas and gallbladder. It’s also likely associated with cancer of the liver, cervix, ovary, prostate, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma. The reason for the association may be related to negative effects on the immune system and inflammation, including hormones that stimulate cell growth. Many of the recommendations by the AICR for cancer prevention also help with achieving and maintaining an ideal body weight, such as increasing physical activity, limiting foods dense in calories like fast food, fried food and sweets and increasing fresh produce in the diet.
4. Manage Your Stress
Aside from lifestyle factors like nutrition and physical activity, studies in mindfulness and stress-reduction are gaining attention for prevention of chronic diseases, including cancer. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine found that participants in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction program saw increased immune markers and decreased inflammatory markers in blood tests. The National Cancer Institute advises that while there is currently no direct proven link between stress and cancer incidence, there may be increased health risks with chronic stress. For example, people under stress may develop certain behaviors — such as smoking, overeating or using alcohol — that could increase risk for cancer. Incorporating practices such as counseling or therapy, meditation, breathing or physical activity can help you improve your quality of life now and help you cope with daily stressors, instead of turning to other habits for help to keep chronic stress in check.
5. Encourage Breast-Feeding
An important topic for men and women alike, supporting and promoting breast-feeding infants may help prevent breast cancer in women, particularly those with a family history of the disease. Though research is mixed on this topic, a 2010 study presented in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed a correlation with having ever breast-fed and decreased incidence of breast cancer in women with a family history. The best research on prevention through breast-feeding practices includes women who have had multiple children and breast-feed for a longer period of time. Though breast-feeding is not a choice or option for some, women who have children and are able to breast-feed could experience another positive from this decision and a possible slight decrease in risk for developing breast cancer in the future.
6. Limit or Avoid Alcohol
Research shows that limiting alcohol intake is an important part of cancer prevention. Current AICR recommendations state that people who drink alcohol should limit it to no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women. Drinking alcohol is associated with an increased risk for head and neck cancers, as well as liver, colorectal, breast and pancreatic cancers. One reason that alcohol increases risk for developing cancer is acetaldehyde, which is a byproduct created when we metabolize alcohol; it is a known carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. Alcohol is also known to increase estrogen concentration in the body. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition estimates that 20 percent of breast cancer incidences are attributed to drinking two or more alcoholic beverages per day. To prevent cancer by limiting alcohol, consume no more than one drink per day if you are a woman or two if you are a man.
7. Increase Physical Activity
By getting moving, you can reduce the risk for cancer including breast, colon, endometrium, prostate and pancreatic. Recommendations for a physically active lifestyle include both increasing daily activity as well as limiting sedentary time. Adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity like brisk walking or yardwork or 75 minutes of vigorous activity like jogging or running each week. Limiting both screen time (TV, computer and phone) and sitting is important as well, and, at a minimum, doing any activity above your usual level is a positive change. Bonus: Increasing your daily activity also decreases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and high blood pressure. Kristin DeAngelis, RDN, RYT, the executive assistant and certified nutritionist for Joe Cross and his team at Reboot With Joe, suggests “going for a daily 30-minute brisk walk and limiting sedentary behavior, such as sitting or watching TV, can help to maintain a healthy weight and reduce cancer risk.”
8. Include Whole Grains and Legumes Daily
Like fresh fruits and vegetables, minimally processed grains like wild rice, barley and quinoa contain cancer-preventing vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber and are also lower in caloric content than most other heavily processed products that may have added sugar or oils. A 2009 study published in Circulation, the American Heart Association’s journal, shows a high intake of red and processed meats, refined grains, french fries, sweets and desserts was linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and total mortality. The recommendation to include whole-grain choices is as important as the recommendation to limit processed or refined grain sources. To accomplish this prevention guideline, be sure that the grains you eat are unprocessed or in their most basic state and include a variety of sources daily.
9. Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables
Fresh produce contains potential anticancer benefits, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. The current recommendations from the AICR for cancer prevention are to eat at least two-and-a-half cups of fruits and vegetables every day. Kristin DeAngelis, RDN, RYT, says, “Incorporating a daily fresh fruit and vegetable juice or smoothie can be an easy way to increase your micronutrient intake and hit the recommended servings of vegetables and fruit a day.” Meeting the recommendations for fresh produce may help with weight loss and healthy weight maintenance, another major cancer-prevention recommendation. To increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, aim to fill half your plate with these choices at each meal.
10. Quit Smoking
Quitting smoking is perhaps the single most important modifiable factor that will decrease your risk of cancer. The current American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention estimates that one third of cancer deaths could be prevented by stopping exposure to tobacco products. Keep in mind that using tobacco and alcohol simultaneously increases risk for mouth, larynx and esophageal cancers, so if you use tobacco products — particularly when drinking alcohol — seek the help you need to quit for good and make a critical choice to reduce your cancer risk.