Reducing the Risk of Cancer Through Lifestyle Measures

Photo by: Flickr
Photo by: Flickr

In 2008 there were around 12.7 million new diagnoses of cancer worldwide. While the link between smoking and lung cancer is widely publicised, the choices we make in terms of what we eat and drink, and how active we are, can also influence our cancer risk. The World Cancer Research Fund estimates that one third of cancers could be prevented through simple changes to lifestyle. They have used the findings of 7,000 research studies to identify eight steps – which are closely inter-linked – that we can all take to reduce our risk of developing cancer.  So what are their recommendations?

.   It is important to maintain a healthy weight, which is a Body Mass Index -determined by dividing weight in kilograms by height in metres twice – between 18.5 and 25Kg/m2 . This is based on very convincing evidence that people who are overweight are at increased risk of cancers of the bowel, oesophagus, pancreas, kidney, uterine and post-menopausal breast cancer. To lose weight, choose lower calorie foods and smaller portions, and take more exercise.

.   Energy dense foods, which contribute to weight gain, tend to be high in fat and/or sugar and are more likely to be processed. Avoiding processed foods and instead basing our diet on wholegrains (which include wholemeal and granary bread, brown rice, oats and cereals such as Weetabix, Shreddies, Shredded Wheat and Bran Flakes), fruit, vegetables and pulses (peas, beans and lentils) can help us choose less energy dense foods.

.   In fact, choosing more plant based foods (fruit, vegetables, pulses and wholegrains) is a recommendation in itself, which is thought to relate to the protective role of fibre, vitamins and minerals in cancer prevention.

.   We should aim for at least 30 minutes of activity daily. Studies show that being more active can reduce the risk of bowel, uterine and post-menopausal breast cancer. This activity doesn’t have to be playing sport, going to the gym or an exercise class; it can simply be slotted into our daily life, for example walking instead of taking the bus or car.

.   As high red meat intakes, particularly processed meats such as ham, bacon and sausage are linked with an increased risk of bowel cancer, it is recommended that we eat at most 500g (cooked weight) of red meat weekly and that we avoid processed meats altogether. Choose chicken, turkey, fish or pulses more often for the protein option in meals.

.   High intakes of salt are linked with stomach cancer, so it is recommended to reduce intake of salt and salty foods. Reduce the amount of salt added in cooking and instead use alternative seasonings such as herbs, black pepper, lemon juice and vinegar. Cooking from scratch reduces salt intake significantly, as three-quarters of our salt intake comes from processed foods. When buying such foods, always check the labels to choose those lowest in salt. Also try to avoid salty snacks such as crisps and salted nuts; instead choose a small handful of dried fruit and unsalted nuts, a piece of fruit or vegetable sticks for something to nibble on.

.   Alcohol increases the risk of head and neck cancers, oesophageal and breast cancer; if alcohol is to be consumed it should be limited to one unit daily for women and two units daily for men – a unit is equivalent to half a pint of beer, lager or cider, 25ml of a spirit or a 125ml glass of wine.

.           Nutritional supplements containing vitamins, minerals and plant extracts are not recommended for the prevention of cancer, in fact, some high dose supplements have actually been shown to increase the risk of cancer. A balanced diet – based on fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and pulses, with small amounts of low fat protein and dairy foods – will provide all the vitamins and minerals that the body requires to maintain optimum health.