American Communities Can Change Lifestyle Habits to Prevent Cancer

American Cancer Society

It will take nothing less than social change to help Americans control their weight — which will, in turn, greatly reduce the incidence of cancer, said a new report by the American Cancer Society (ACS).

The ACS estimates that one-third of the 500,000 annual cancer deaths in the US are due to poor diet and lack of exercise that leads to excess weight and obesity, while another third is from cigarette smoking.

That means thousands of people can improve their chances against cancer. But it is a battle that many find hard to win and that the community-at-large needs to help them with, said Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, director of nutrition and physical activity at the ACS.

The report, “American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention,” is developed by a panel of experts and issued every five years.

But this is the first one to include recommendations for children and to call for a broad effort by all levels of government as well as the private sector to help Americans prevent cancer.

Most people know that a poor diet can lead to heart disease and diabetes, and many also know that cancer can arise from unhealthy eating. But few people seem to be aware of the link between cancer and lack of physical activity, said Doyle.

Recent evidence, in fact, suggests a direct link between lack of exercise and breast and colon cancer, she said.

“In people’s minds, there should be an equal emphasis on both diet and lifestyle,” said Doyle. “Both need to be balanced to maintain a healthy weight, which is the ultimate goal.

Obesity in the US is increasing at an alarming rate. The National Center for Health Statistics reports almost two-thirds (61%) of adults, more than 150 million Americans, are overweight enough that it poses a risk to their health.

Only 22% of adults engage in sustained physical activity of any intensity during their leisure time.

The new guidelines ask people to maintain normal weight throughout life. For healthy eating, people should consume a variety of healthful foods, with a focus on plant sources.

That means five or more servings of vegetables and fruit each day; whole grains instead of refined or processed grains and sugars; and limited red meats. Drinking alcohol should be limited, as well, the guidelines said.

For a physically active lifestyle, adults should have at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity five or more days of the week, and children need at least an hour of exercise five or more days of the week.

In a culture that super sizes food but offers few public sidewalks and little school physical education, it may take more than willpower to slim people down, said Doyle.

Federal, state, and local governments, along with private and public organizations, should all work together to create a social and physical environment that will make it easier for people to be active and eat right, which will, in turn, help reduce weight and the likelihood of cancer development.

“Companies can reimburse for athletic club memberships; workplaces can offer healthy food, as can schools,” said Doyle. “Cities and towns can provide safe playgrounds as well as sidewalks.

“We all have to work together to have a healthier lifestyle for both adults and children,” she said.

The power of social change has helped reduce the number of people who smoke, Doyle added, and can also work “to foster a healthier lifestyle for both adults and children — and fewer cases of cancer.”