We are continually learning about the lifestyle factors that may reduce our risk of cancer. Here are simple changes you can make from today
Most of us know someone affected by cancer. In the UK, a person is diagnosed every two minutes. Incidence rates have risen by nearly 30% since the 1970s, increasing in women by 37% and in men by 17%. This can be partly explained by more robust screening programmes. But it’s also down to our lifestyles: the way we eat and whether we drink, smoke or exercise (and how often). According to Cancer Research UK, 42% of cancer cases are preventable through lifestyle changes. Current statistics show 9% of diagnoses can be linked to an unhealthy diet alone. Alarming? Yes, but it does mean there are steps you can take to reduce your risk – starting right now.
How to make a difference
1. Watch your weight and waist
Being overweight or obese accounts for 5% of cancer cases and increases the risk of 11 cancers including kidney, breast and bowel, so it’s important to keep an eye on the scales. You can assess your BMI and ensure it’s within the healthy range of 18.5 to 24.9 by using the BMI calculator at nhs.uk.
Waist size is an equally important measure. It should be no larger than 80cm (31.5in) for women or 94cm (37in) for men. Find out how to measure your waist accurately at healthyfood.co.uk/article/how-to-check-if-youre-overweight.
‘Always avoid fad diets when trying to lose weight,’ says Monika Siemicka, oncology dietitian and BDA spokesperson. ‘Yes, you may lose weight very quickly, but once you return to old eating habits the weight is more likely to come back on. For the best results, think about long-term changes that are easy to make and stick to.’
If you’re among the 62% of adults who are overweight or obese, ask your GP to refer you to a dietitian to guide you through a healthy weight-loss plan, or search for a registered dietitian at freelancedietitians.org.
2. Turn to plants
There’s plenty of evidence linking a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and pulses to a reduced cancer risk. ‘Years of research have shown a healthy balanced diet can help to reduce the risk of cancer,’ confirms Dr Jana Witt of Cancer Research UK. The connection between eating large amounts of red and processed meat and colorectal or bowel cancer is also well established; a US study found those who ate a vegetarian diet had a 22% lower risk of colorectal cancer.
Veg such as broccoli, kale, spinach and carrots contain antioxidants that can reduce the risk of mouth and throat cancers
When dietary patterns are broken down, eating too few fruit and veg accounts for 5% of cancer cases, eating red and processed meat for 3%, eating too little fibre for 2% and too much salt for 1%. But there is good news: according to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), consuming fruit and non-starchy veg such as broccoli, kale, spinach and carrots can reduce the risk of cancers of the mouth and throat. This may be because they contain lots of antioxidant nutrients, as well as other naturally occurring substances that help to protect cells in the body from damage.