Lauren Fay, RD, CSO, CNSC, is a registered dietitian at the Inova Schar Cancer Institute and Life With Cancer. She is board-certified in oncology nutrition and nutrition support.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recently released new diet and activity guidelines to reduce cancer risk. Great, you might be thinking. One more thing I should be doing. But guidelines like these aren’t rules, and they shouldn’t be a source of stress. After all, this year is stressful enough — and the pandemic has turned many well-intentioned diet and exercise goals upside-down.

Think of the new guidelines as a motivator to guide you as you start making healthier choices, one small step at a time. Here’s what you should know.

Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Cancer Risk

It’s important to remember that there are many contributing factors to cancer. Many of those factors are outside your control. In other words, cancer isn’t anyone’s fault. Still, there are actions you can take to reduce your risk. Making choices like healthy eating, being physically active, avoiding or limiting alcohol consumption, and not smoking can significantly reduce the risk of cancer.

One notable feature of these guidelines: they aren’t exactly a surprise. They build on a long history of research that has consistently shown which diet and exercise patterns most influence cancer risk. Given that consistency, we can be confident that these changes have a positive influence on health.

Based on the latest research, the ACS’s new diet and exercise guidelines make four broad evidence-based recommendations for reducing cancer risk:

1. Try to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. The goal is to maintain a healthy weight across your lifespan, and avoid weight gain as you age.

2. Be physically active. Ideally, adults should engage in 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. And try to limit sedentary behavior, like sitting in front of the TV.

3. Follow a healthy eating pattern. Specifically, that means a diet centered around high-nutrient foods, including whole grains, fruits and a variety of vegetables. It’s best to avoid or limit red and processed meats and sugar-sweetened beverages.

4. Avoid alcohol. For reducing cancer risk, it is best not to consume alcohol. If you choose to drink, try to limit consumption to no more than one drink per day for women and two for men.

Diet & Activity Goals: Where to Begin

Think of the guidelines as a starting point. Where do you go from there? These strategies will help you move in the right direction.

  • Think big picture. Avoid focusing on individual foods or nutrients, like eating a lot of kale or cutting out carbs, as research shows these changes don’t have a significant health impact. Instead, concentrate on overall healthy eating patterns: Try to increase the number of plant-based foods on your plate, and cut back on red meat, processed foods and sugary snacks and drinks.
  • Focus on behaviors, not numbers. While the guidelines recommend maintaining a healthy body weight, research shows focusing only on weight is not likely to lead to losing weight and keeping it off. Instead of worrying only about the number on the scale, focus on something you have control over — your behaviors. Making positive changes to your eating patterns and physical activity levels will be a benefit to reducing your risk for cancer and your overall health, regardless of your weight.
  • Start small. If you try to go from 0 to 60 with new habits, those changes will be hard to maintain. Instead of dramatically overhauling your diet and exercise habits, make small, sustainable changes. You might start with adding 10 minutes a day of walking or biking. Once that’s a habit, add another 10. Similarly, you don’t have to go from meat lover to embracing a plant-based diet overnight. But you could try making one vegetarian dinner a week, or swapping processed carbs for whole grains. Making small changes will move the dial in the right direction — and is more likely to lead to changes you can stick with.
  • Watch what you drink. Beverages are an easy first step toward change. Most people know that sugar-sweetened soda isn’t part of a healthy diet. But sugar is often hiding in other drinks too: coffee, iced tea, sports drinks, even sweetened kombucha. Swapping those drinks for unsweetened beverages (like plain iced tea or sparkling water) is a quick way to improve your diet.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. If your meal choices on any given day do not align with these guidelines, there’s no need to stress. The goal isn’t to eat a “perfect” diet every meal, every day, but to shift toward a healthier overall pattern of eating. Maintaining a healthy relationship with food and physical activity is critical for long-term success. So give yourself some grace — especially during these stressful times — and take it one step at a time.

Learn more about cancer screenings and services at the Inova Schar Cancer Institute.

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