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Tips to Reduce Your Cancer Risk

Posted: February 1, 2023



By: Stephanie Swarthout, MS, RD
CCNW Oncology Dietician / Nutritionist

Did you know it is estimated that 30-40% of cancers can be attributed to modifiable risk factors including smoking, drinking alcohol, weight gain, an eating pattern low in vegetables and fruits, and physical inactivity? While it may not be possible to eliminate one’s risk for cancer completely, making even small changes can be beneficial to your health.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) have identified a variety of ways to reduce risk for cancer occurrence. In honor of National Cancer Prevention Month this month, we are sharing some of these important recommendations with you:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight. Research has shown that excess fat mass, larger waist circumference, and greater waist-to-hip ratio are linked to increased risk for numerous cancers. Maintain a healthy weight throughout your adult life to reduce your cancer risk.
  2. Be physically active. Limit sedentary behaviors like siting and laying down. Activity helps to reduce weight gain, improves insulin sensitivity, reduces insulin levels, improves immune system, and helps increase gut transit time thus reducing exposure to carcinogens. At least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week is recommended. For greater protection, this should be increased to 45-60 minutes/day moderate, 30 minutes vigorous every day. Activity provides protective benefits regardless of body weight.
  3. Plant-based eating style. AICR recommends eating 30g of fiber/day. An eating pattern rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes is consistently associated with lower risk of cancer. This eating pattern is rich in phytochemicals (chemical compounds produced by plants), vitamins and minerals that, as part of the whole food, may protect against cancer in several ways.
  4. Limit red meat consumption. Red meat includes beef, pork, and lamb. It is recommended to limit intake to no more than 12-18oz/week and have little if any processed meat (preserved by smoking, curing, fermenting, salting, or addition of chemical preservatives).
  5. Drink less sugar-sweetened beverages. These provide calories without other nutrition or satiety (feeling of being full) like food does. Drinking excess calories from these beverages can lead to weight gain and indirectly increase risk for at least 12 types of cancer.
  6. Avoid alcohol. For cancer prevention, it is best not to drink alcohol. Regardless of the type of drink, the effect of alcohol comes from ethanol, which is classified as a carcinogen. There is no “safe” amount or type of alcohol when it comes to cancer prevention. Total lifetime intake of alcohol affects risk later in life.
  7. Nourish your body with food, not supplements. AICR does not support use of supplements as an effective strategy to reduce cancer risk. Some studies have linked high-dose supplements with negative outcomes, such as smokers who take high dose B-carotene may be at increased risk for lung cancer. Bottom line: nutrients should be obtained through food, not supplements.
  8. Breastfeeding. There is strong evidence that lactation reduces mother’s risk for both premenopausal and post-menopausal breast cancer. Exclusive breastfeeding for first 6 months of baby’s life is recommended. The longer a woman breastfeeds, the greater their protection against cancer.


What does this all mean for us? Here are the takeaways:

  • Maintain a healthy weight throughout life. If you are overweight, even modest weight loss (5-10%) may reduce cancer risk.
  • Be physically active as part of everyday life – move more, sit less.
  • Limit intake of fast food and other processed foods high in fat and added sugars (candy, desserts, soda).
  • Limit or do not drink sugar-sweetened beverages. Choose water and unsweetened drinks.
  • For cancer prevention, it is best not to drink alcohol.
  • Aim to meet nutrition needs through diet alone, not supplements.
  • For mothers, breastfeed if you can.

There is no better time than now, during National Cancer Prevention Month, to adapt a healthier lifestyle and reduce your cancer risk. To schedule a nutrition consult, please contact your CCNW Oncologist for a referral.