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How Do Diet and Physical Activity Affect Your Risk for Cancer?

Diet and physical activity affect your risk for cancer much more than you might think!

Courtesy of American Cancer Society


Research shows that poor diet and lack of physical activity are two key factors that contribute to an increase in a person’s risk for cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund estimates that about 20% of all cancers diagnosed in the US are related to body fat, lack of physical activity, too much alcohol consumption, and/or poor nutrition. The good news? All of these are fixable! In addition to quitting smoking and chewing tobacco, some of the most important things you can do to help reduce your cancer risk are good for your body and your life as a whole.

1. Keep yourself at a healthy weight.

Achieving and staying at a healthy weight is important to not only reduce the risk of cancer, but other chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Being overweight increases the risk of several cancers, including breast cancer (in women past menopause), colon and rectum cancer, endometrium (the lining of the uterus), esophagus, pancreatic cancer, and kidney cancer, and many others. Carrying excess weight causes the body to produce and circulate more estrogen and insulin, hormones that can stimulate cancer growth. To reduce cancer risk, most people need to keep their Body Mass Index (BMI) below 25. Ask your doctor what your BMI number means and what action (if any) you should take.

2. Be physically active on a regular basis.

Being physically active helps reduce your risk for cancer by helping keep your weight in check. It can also improve your hormone levels and the way your immune system works, as well as help you reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

The latest recommendations for adults are to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (walking, biking, even housework and gardening) or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise (running, swimming laps, elliptical, jumping rope) each week. It’s equally important to limit sedentary behavior like sitting, lying down, watching television, or other forms of screen-based entertainment. Any kind of physical activity, no matter how strenuous, can have many health benefits, so get out there and get moving!

3. Eat healthy plant-based foods and reduce your alcohol consumption.

Eating well is important for your health and reducing your risk for cancer. Ask yourself:  How well am I eating–really? Here are some tips to build a healthy diet plan for yourself and your family:

Choose foods and drinks in healthy portion sizes.

  • Read food labels to become aware of portion sizes and calories in each serving. Be aware that “low-fat” or “non-fat” does not necessarily mean “low-calorie.”
  • Eat smaller portions when eating high-calorie foods.
  • Choose vegetables, whole fruit, legumes (peas and beans), and other low-calorie foods instead of calorie-dense foods like potato chips, ice cream, French fries, donuts, and other sweets.
  • Limit how much sugar-sweetened beverages you drink (soft drinks, sports drinks, and fruit-flavored drinks).
  • It’s easy to indulge when out of town or away from home. Be careful to choose foods that are low in calories, fat, and added sugar, and avoid eating large portion sizes.

Limit how much processed meat and red meat you eat.

  • Limit processed meats in your meals (bacon, sausage, lunch meats, and hot dogs).
  • Choose fish, poultry, or beans instead of red meat.
  • If you eat red meat, choose lean cuts and eat smaller portion sizes.

Eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day.

  • Include vegetables and fruits at every meal and snack.
  • Eat a variety of vegetables and fruits each day, emphasizing whole fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit your use of creamy sauces, dressings, and dips with fruits and vegetables.

Choose whole grains instead of refined grain products.

  • Choose whole-grain breads, pasta, and cereals (such as barley and oats) instead of breads, cereals, and pasta made from refined grains.
  • Limit how much refined carbohydrate foods you eat (pastries, candy, sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals, and other high-sugar foods).

If you drink alcohol, limit it per day.

  • To reduce the risk of cancer, limiting the amount of alcohol you consume is more important than the type of alcohol you consume.
  • Men who drink alcohol should limit their consumption to no more than two drinks per day. Women should consume no more one drink.
  • A “drink” is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of 80-proof hard liquor.

What we choose to put into our bodies plays a large role in our body’s ability to stay healthy.

For  more information about cancer prevention, visit the American Cancer Society website at

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