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Changing your lifestyle can significantly help reduce your risk of cancer, new research shows. Halfpoint Images/Getty Images
  • Modifiable lifestyle factors like diet and exercise play an important role in mitigating cancer risk.
  • New research now indicates that the more positive lifestyle changes you make, the lower your risk.
  • Limiting sugar, red meat, and processed food consumption are important dietary changes to make.

Evidence continues to mount that modifiable lifestyle factors like diet and exercise have a significant impact on reducing your risk of cancer.

New research published November 29 in Biomed Central, a medical journal, found that individuals who adhered to lifestyle recommendations made by the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) had lower risk of all cancers, as well as site-specific cancers like breast, colorectal, and ovarian.

“Our study suggests that following the WCRF/AICR lifestyle-based Cancer Prevention Recommendations is associated with lowering our risk of cancer, in particular two of the world’s top 4 cancers,” Dr. Fiona Malcomson, PhD, Lecturer in Human Nutrition at Newcastle University, and one of the authors of the study, told Healthline.

However, she noted that the study’s observational nature means they can not conclude a direct causal relationship between adherence and cancer risk.

For each recommendation, which included exercise, limiting sugary beverages, and maintaining a healthy weight, experts created a simple “score” system to measure how well an individual followed.

If, for example, you stopped drinking sugary beverages, you’d get one point, but if sodas were still part of your regular diet, you’d get zero points.

There are also more incremental approaches to scoring; for example, if you partially met a recommendation, you could be awarded half a point.

After getting an individual’s score, researchers could look at health outcomes to see if that score was associated with, say, incidences of cancer.

To conduct this new study, researchers utilized the UK Biobank, a prospective health study with more than a half-million participants. The cohort includes both men and women ages 37–73 years from across the United Kingdom and includes data on the health, diet, and socioeconomic status of its participants.

Researchers were able to draw on this wealth of data, including just under 95,000 participants with an average age of 56 years old in their study.

During an average 8-year follow-up period, 7,296 participants (about 8%) developed some form of cancer.

Using the WCRF/AICR recommendations point system, participants were assigned a score between 0-7 based on their adherence.

What the researchers found shows how significant lifestyle changes can be for cancer risk: for each point, all cancer risk dropped by 7%.

In site-specific cancers, the benefits were even more stark.

For every point, the risk of breast and colorectal cancer dropped by 10%; kidney cancer had an 18% lower risk; ovarian cancer (24%), esophageal cancer (22%), and gallbladder cancer (30%) showed sizable improvements as well.

“It’s exciting to see that promoting or adhering to recommended lifestyle changes can actually be protective,” said Dr. Lidia Schapira, a Professor of Oncology at Stanford University. She wasn’t affiliated with the research.

There are also apparent trends across the score range. Participants in the highest range (4.5-7), demonstrating the highest levels of adherence, had a 16% reduced risk of all cancer risk, compared to those in the lowest score range.

Site-specific cancers also followed suit; participants in the highest score range showed lower risk across breast cancer (18%), colorectal cancer (21%), kidney (36%), esophageal (36%), and ovarian (43%) compared to those with the least adherence.

The WCRF/AICR established new recommendations in 2018, their first major update since their prior publication in 2007.

Previous studies have examined associations between the 2007 recommendations and health-related outcomes, but this is the first time researchers have been able to utilize the updated recommendations.

The recommendations include the following:

  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • being physically active
  • eating healthy and including plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • limiting consumption of processed foods, red meat, and sugar
  • not drinking sugary beverages
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • do not use supplements to prevent cancer

They also recommend people who give birth should breastfeed if possible.

Some of the changes between the 2007 and 2018 recommendations include the removal of the recommendation to “eat less salt,” due to inconclusive evidence; and the inclusion of the recommendation to specifically limit sugar from beverages like soda and juice.

Malcomson encourages everyone to try following the WCRF/AICR recommendations as closely as possible, but small steps are also important.

“Even improvements in one or two of these components is enough to make a difference,” she said.

Schapira also encourages individuals who want to take on some of these lifestyle changes to make them manageable and positive: “Focus on one thing, instead of just saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to change these eight things about my life and my diet. It’s just too much so I won’t do any.’”

“We should think about helping people to focus perhaps one or two recommendations, and doing it in an incremental or sequential way,” she said.

Lifestyle changes, like diet and exercise, are an important way to improve your health and cancer risk.

New research indicates that individuals who adhere to World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) 2018 recommendations show lower risk for all cancer and site-specific cancer risk.

Small steps like eliminating sugary drinks from your diet, eating less red meat, and exercising more frequently can have a major impact on reducing your cancer risk.