A Call to Push the Guidelines on Nutrition and Physicial Activity for Cancer Prevention
Good nutrition and physical activity do more than make our patients healthy in the moment. New research is demonstrating that these good habits may keep them healthier long term, including reducing their risk of developing cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), one-third of all cancer deaths in the United States each year are linked to diet and physical activity, including being overweight or obese. However, many patients believe heredity and environmental factors provide the only influence on the risk of developing cancer. Unfortunately, most patients have little control over their hereditary and environmental factors.
While we can’t change genetics, and sometimes we can’t change environmental factors that relate to cancer, we can reduce the risks of cancer through diet and exercise. And that’s something our patients can control on their own.
The ACS agrees. Their Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention focus on four specific recommendations regarding diet and physical activity patterns. These recommendations are:[i]
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight throughout life
- Be physically active
- Eat a healthy diet with an emphasis on plant foods
- If you drink alcohol, limit your intake
These guidelines are similar to what doctors tell patients about health all the time, but often patients wait until they come to their oncologist with cancer to change their lifestyle habits. We need to shift our thinking and our focus to healthy eating and physical activity as prevention.
In fact, new research is showing strong correlations between patients who adopted healthier lifestyles and decreased cancer rates.
In a recent article, “Nutrition and Physical Activity Cancer Prevention Guidelines, Cancer Risk, and Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative,” published in the January 2014 issue of Cancer Prevention Research[ii], researchers followed post-menopausal women enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative for an average of eight years. These women were scored based on how closely they followed the ACS Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention. What they found was a significantly reduced risk of developing cancer.
Specifically the data showed the women who followed the guidelines had:
- 17% lower risk of any cancer
- 22% lower risk of breast cancer
- 52% lower risk of colorectal cancer
- 20% lower risk of cancer-specific mortality
I don’t think telling patients about these benefits is enough anymore. We need to offer suggestions and find programs in the community that help people choose to make a difference in their health. Programs such as the national Meatless Mondays program and Cincinnati’s local Closing the Health Gap initiative, as well as our parks and recreation systems’ programming and personal support groups.
Again, the ACS agrees. The Guidelines for Nutritional and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention states that “a supportive social and physical environment is indispensable if individuals at all levels of society are to have genuine opportunities to choose healthy behaviors.” In addition, the Guidelines provide community recommendations, such as increasing access to affordable, healthy foods as well as providing safe, enjoyable, and accessible environments for physical activity.
They sound like normal New Year’s resolutions, but the benefits to making changes as simple as increasing plant-based foods in a few meals a week and encouraging your patients to move more throughout the day can make an impact that’s more like a revolution.
[i] American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention: Reducing the Risk of Cancer with Healthy Food Choices and Physical Activity. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, V62, Issue 1. First published online: January 11, 2012.
[ii] Tomson CA, McCullough ML, Wertheim BC, et al. Nutrition and Physical Activity Cancer Prevention Guidelines Cancer Risk, and Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative. Cancer Prev Res 2014;7:42-53.