There are more than 293,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed each year in the UK, and more than 1 in 3 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. More than 1 in 3 people – that is a shocking figure.
According to Cancer Research UK, approximately half and probably more, of all cancers could be prevented by diet and lifestyle changes.
So we do have the power to act and reduce our personal risk of developing cancer – but how?
The following nine recommendations come from the World Cancer Research Fund Global Network (WCRFGN), which is made up of a panel of international experts working in the fields of cancer prevention, epidemiology, human nutrition, obesity and public health. Many of the recommendations are familiar public health goals based on maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise and a well-balanced diet.
The WCRFGN recommendations:
- Be as lean as possible within the normal range of body weight
- Be physically active as part of everyday life
- Limit consumption of energy-dense foods and avoid sugary drinks
- Eat mostly foods of plant origin
- Limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat
- Limit alcoholic drinks
- Limit consumption of salt and avoid mouldy cereals or pulses
- Aim to meet nutritional needs through diet alone
- Mothers to breastfeed and children to be breastfed exclusively for six months and as complementary feeding thereafter
Let’s take a closer look at these recommendations and unpick what they actually mean for the average person in the street.
Be as lean as possible within the normal range of body weight
This means keep your Body Mass Index within the healthy range, ie. between 18-25. Ideally at the lower end of this range. If your BMI is above 25 you are classified as overweight and if it’s over 30 you are classified as obese. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing certain cancers. To calculate your BMI you just need your height and your weight, then you can do it online at: http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/Healthyweightcalculator.aspx
If you want help losing weight in a healthy and sustainable way, find out how at Key Nutrition’s Wellbeing and Weight Management Programme at: http://www.key-nutrition.com/content/conditions/wwp/wellbeing_weight.php
Be physically active as part of everyday life
We should be engaging in moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes every day. Physical activity of longer duration or greater intensity is more beneficial. Limit sedentary activities such as watching TV, playing computer games etc. If gyms aren’t for you then find an activity you enjoy – dancing, climbing, skating, cycling……
Limit consumption of energy-dense foods and avoid sugary drinks
This recommendation is closely linked to weight control. Energy-dense foods are foods that are high in calories and very often low in nutrients. For example, fast food and take-aways are energy-dense (highly calorific) and nutrient-poor (contain little by way of vitamins and minerals). Sugary drinks are also empty calories and can contribute significantly to weight gain. Drink water or herbal teas instead!
Eat mostly foods of plant origin
The research has shown that most diets that are protective against cancer (and many other non-communicable diseases) are mainly made up of foods from plant origin. Overall, it is estimated that up to 2.7 million lives could potentially be saved each year if fruit and vegetable consumption were sufficiently increased.
We are all familiar with the mantra “five a day”. Well, five is the absolute minimum number of portions of fruit and vegetables we need to be eating every day in order to have any effect on our cancer risk. The World Health Organisation recommends 8-10 portions per day, with the onus on vegetables rather than fruit. This is best made up from a range of non-starchy vegetables and fruits of different colours including red, green, yellow, white, purple, and orange, including tomato-based products and allium vegetables such as garlic.
A good way to increase your intake of plant foods is to make smoothies and juices at home with fresh fruits and vegetables, make salads and soups (cold ones for summer!) and make sure you always have 2-3 portions of vegetables with your main meals of the day.
Limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat
The research shows that people who eat large amount of red meat and/or processed meats are at increased risk of certain cancers. However, it is recognised that many foods of animal origin are nourishing and healthy if eaten in modest amounts. Meat is a valuable source of iron, zinc, protein, and Vitamin B12.
The WCRFGN recommends people who eat red meat to eat less than 500g a week, and to eat very little, if any, processed meat. Processed meat refers to meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or through the addition of chemical preservatives. This generally includes ham, salami, bacon, hot dogs and some sausages.
If you want to know more about the links between red and processed meat and certain types of cancer, you can read more at: http://www.wcrf-uk.org/preventing_cancer/diet/meat_on_the_menu.php
Limit alcoholic drinks
The evidence on alcohol and cancer justifies a recommendation not to drink alcoholic drinks. However, other evidence shows that modest amounts of alcohol are likely to have a positive effect on the risk of cardiovascular disease. Therefore it is hard to draw any firm conclusions other than to say that in relation to cancer specifically, even small amounts of alcohol have a negative impact on risk. If you do like a drink then stick to government guidelines – 3-4 units per day for men and 2-3 units for women. And remember one drink does NOT equal one unit. Check out this website for more information on units and the effect of alcohol on health: http://www.drinkingandyou.com/site/uk/what.htm
Limit consumption of salt and avoid mouldy cereals or pulses
Current guidance is that adults should consume less than 6g salt per day. Average intake in the UK is around 9g, and the vast majority comes from processed or packaged foods, rather than any salt we might add at the table. So the first rule is always read the label. Any food containing more than 1.5g of salt per 100g of food is a high salt food. It is not only the obvious salty foods (crisps and other snacks) that contain high levels of salt, many breakfast cereals and bakery goods come very close to this threshold and should be avoided.
The evidence shows that salt and salt-preserved foods are probably a cause of stomach cancer, and that foods contaminated with aflatoxins are a cause of liver cancer. Aflatoxins are produced by some moulds when cereals (grains) and pulses (legumes) are stored for too long in warm temperatures. This is not only a problem in tropical climates.
The last two recommendations are not specifically related to what foods we can eat more of, or avoid, to reduce our risk of cancer. Therefore these two points will not be expanded on in this article.
There are a number of dietary and lifestyle changes we can make to reduce our risk of developing cancer in our lifetime. However, it is not possible to eliminate the risk entirely, even if all these recommendations were followed to the letter. In cancer, as in all disease, our genetics and environmental factors also have a role to play. What we can do is look after ourselves as best we can, eat our greens, stay active and keep a positive outlook for the future health of those we love.
- For some great recipe ideas and other information related to cancer prevention and diet see the World Cancer Research Fund’s website at: http://www.wcrf-uk.org/preventing_cancer/diet/index.php
- For worldwide statistics on cancer incidence: http://www.wcrf-uk.org/research/cancer_statistics.php
- World Cancer Research Fund Global Network – Summary: Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective Published in Washington, DC: AICR 2007
- Cancer Research UK – on incidence of cancer http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/cancerstats/incidence/index.htm
- World Health Organisation – on fruit and vegetable consumption: http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/fruit/en/index.html
- Image Credit: www.aicr.org
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