In October 2007, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) published its Second Expert Report on Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective

Background

Each year in the UK, more than a quarter of a million people are diagnosed with cancer. The four most common cancers (breast, lung, bowel and prostate) make up over half of all these cases. It is estimated that more than one in three of us will develop some form of cancer at some point in our lives.

Cancer is a complex disease and there are many factors that influence whether or not an individual develops cancer. One such factor is our diet and it has been estimated that approximately 30% of cancers could be prevented by dietary means in countries such as the UK.

To date, very few definite relationships between dietary factors and cancer risk have been established, but this has not stopped numerous foods being branded the new ‘superfood’ against cancer. Such stories always hit the headlines although in most cases, the strength of the message portrayed by the media and some health professionals is greater than the strength of the evidence associating the foods with cancer risk. This can lead to confusion about the simple changes we could make to our diets to reduce cancer risk.

Evidence reviewed

The WCRF report is the most comprehensive report ever published on the link between cancer and diet, physical activity and weight. The search for studies published since the 1960s was carried out at nine academic institutions across the world. They initially identified half a million studies looking at the links between diet and cancer and 7,000 were judged to be the most relevant and robust for inclusion in the report.
 
The WCRF report includes 10 recommendations developed by a panel of 21 world-renowned scientists that represent the most definitive and authoritative advice that has ever been available on how the general public can prevent cancer.

  • Be as lean as possible within the normal range of body weight
  • Be physically active as part of everyday life
  • Limit consumption of energy-dense foods. Avoid sugary drinks
  • Eat mostly foods of plant origin
  • Limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat
  • Limit alcoholic drinks
  • Limit consumption of salt. Avoid mouldy cereals (grains) or pulses (legumes)
  • Aim to meet nutritional needs through diet alone
  • Mothers to breastfeed; children to be breastfed
  • Cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention

What does this mean for me?

The WCRF recommendations provide guidance for reducing the risk of cancer. Collectively, the recommendations show the importance of following a healthy, active lifestyle, being mindful of the need to stay physically active and a healthy bodyweight. It is worth remembering that it's more important to look at your diet as a whole than single out particular items to avoid altogether. It's important to look at your entire diet over the course of a day, or a month or a week rather than individual foods. Indeed, a healthy diet is a diet based on breads, rice, potatoes and pasta, and is rich in fruit and vegetables. It will include moderate amounts of milk and dairy products, meat, fish, eggs and beans and limited amounts of foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar. No single food can provide all the essential nutrients that the body needs, and any one food is unlikely to cause harm if you eat it in moderate amounts. So it is important that you eat a wide variety of different foods; that way you can make sure that you maximise your chances of being healthy and happy well into your old age!

Last reviewed July 2009. Next review due January 2013. 

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