Six years ago the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute of Cancer Research published the mother of all literature reviews on food, nutrition, physical activity and the prevention of cancer (1).
A panel of 21 world-renowned scientists reviewed the research evidence and drew conclusions based on in-depth analysis of over 7,000 scientific studies published on cancer prevention over the last 50 years.
As a result of this review they made a number of recommendations:
- Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight
- Be physically active for at least 30 minutes per day
- Limit consumption of energy-dense foods and avoid sugary drinks
- Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and pulses
- Limit consumption of red meats and avoid processed meats
- If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to 2 per day for men and 1 per day for women
- Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt
- Don’t use supplements to protect against cancer
- Do not smoke or chew tobacco
- Breastfeed exclusively for up to 6 months and then add other liquids and foods
- After treatment, cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention.
Since then further research has been conducted to see whether compliance with these recommendations has any effect on the risk of death from cancer and other diseases.
The findings were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on 3 April 2013 (2).
Researchers investigated nearly 380,000 people in nine European countries over 12 years and examined their diet and lifestyle to see how closely they complied with seven of World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research’s (WCRF/AICR) Recommendations for Cancer Prevention.
They found that the risk of dying from several diseases, including cancer, circulatory diseases and respiratory diseases, can be reduced by 34 per cent if these recommendations are followed.
Those who most closely followed the WCRF/AICR Recommendations had a 50 per cent reduced chance of dying from respiratory disease, 44 per cent for circulatory disease and 20 per cent for cancer, when compared to the group with the lowest level of compliance.
The Recommendations with the greatest impact on reducing the risk of death from disease were being as lean as possible without becoming underweight (22 per cent reduced risk) and eating mostly plant foods (21 per cent).
In terms of cancer, limiting alcohol consumption and following the plant food recommendation reduced the risk of dying from the disease by the greatest margin, at 21 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.
The study is the first to examine breastfeeding as part of a combination of lifestyle changes to see what effect it has on risk of dying. It showed that women who breastfed for at least six months had a reduced risk of death from cancer (ten per cent) and circulatory disease (17 per cent).
Although the WRCF/AICR recommendations were focused on the prevention of cancer, this study shows that adherence to these recommendations also reduces the risk of other diseases.
The bottom line is that maintaining a lean body by consuming a predominantly plant-based diet, being physically active and minimising intake of alcohol is most likely to protect you from cancer. Looking after yourself in this way will also help to reduce your risk of circulatory and respiratory diseases.
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1. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. Washington DC : AICR, 2007.
2. Adherence to the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research guidelines and risk of death in Europe: results from the European Prospective Investigation into Nutrition and Cancer cohort study. Anne-Claire Vergnaud et al. 3 April 2013, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.