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How to reduce your risk of cancer: 7 lifestyle recommendations from scientists

Serafina Kenny   

How to reduce your risk of cancer: 7 lifestyle recommendations from scientists
  • Researchers studied whether cancer prevention tips actually lowered the risk of the disease.
  • People who most closely followed seven recommendations appeared to have a lower cancer risk.

Researchers say seven lifestyle habits, including limiting red meat, doing more exercise, and not drinking alcohol, are linked to a lower risk of developing cancer.

The study, published in BMC Medicine on Tuesday, assessed whether following cancer prevention recommendations set in 2018 by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research did indeed lower the risk of developing the disease.

The seven 2018 WCRF/AICR recommendations used in the study were:

  • Be a healthy weight

  • Move more

  • Eat a better diet

  • Avoid high calorie foods and drinks

  • Limit consumption of red and processed meat

  • Limit consumption of sugary sweetened drinks

  • Don't drink alcohol

Researchers from Newcastle University, UK, looked at the BMI, waist circumference, and self-reported data on diet and exercise from 94,778 adults taking part in the UK Biobank study, collected between 2006 and 2010, and gave each participant a score out of seven. Participants were given zero points if they did not adhere to a recommendation, half a point if they partially adhered, and one point if they fully adhered. The average score was 3.8.

The researchers then followed each subject until they were either diagnosed with cancer, passed away, or until the follow-up period ended (which was July 2019 for England and Wales, and October 2015 for Scotland).

Following the recommendations appeared to lower the risk of cancer

Of the participants, 7,296, or 8%, developed cancer during the follow-up period, most commonly prostate, breast, and colorectal cancers.

The researchers found that participants who scored highly — between 4.5 and seven points — had a 16% lower risk of all cancers combined than those with a score of less than 3.5, and that even participants scoring between 3.75 and 4.25 points had an 8% lower risk of developing all cancers combined.

They also found that each one-point increase in participants' scores was associated with a 7% reduction of developing all cancers combined, as well as a 10% lower risk of breast cancer, 10% lower risk of colorectal cancer, and a "significantly reduced risk" of kidney, oesophageal, ovarian, liver, and gallbladder cancers.

The study's authors acknowledge that their study is observational, and so doesn't prove following the recommendations lower the risk of cancer. More research is needed to investigate the specific impacts of each of lifestyle factor on cancer risk.

Study co-author Fiona Malcomson, a research associate at Newcastle University's Human Nutrition Research Centre, told Insider: "following the recommendations promotes a healthier lifestyle, which overall reduces our risk of non-communicable diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.

"For example, the recommendation to be a healthy body weight comes from strong evidence that greater body fatness increases our cancer risk in several ways, for example by promoting inflammation and by releasing hormones such as estrogen."

The World Cancer Research Fund's tips for following their cancer prevention recommendations

The WCRF recommends that to prevent cancer, people should be physically active for at least 150 minutes a week, and try to sit less.

They also recommend people eat healthy, whole foods — making wholegrains, vegetables, fruit, and legumes "a major part" of their daily diet — while avoiding fast food and processed foods and eating no more than three portions of red meat per week. They said it's best to not drink alcohol at all to prevent cancer, and to drink mostly water.

The WCRF/AICR makes two further recommendations for cancer prevention, which were not used in the study as there was not enough data: mothers breastfeeding their babies if possible, and people getting their nutrients from their diets rather than using supplements to protect against cancer.

They also recommend not smoking and avoiding excess sun to reduce cancer risk.

Malcomson said: "People should aim to follow as many of the Cancer Prevention Recommendations as they can to reduce their risk of cancer and other non-communicable diseases. However, any change made will have a positive impact on reducing cancer risk, for example increasing your adherence score by half a point by going from eating 2.5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day to reaching the recommended five servings."

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