You Can Reduce Your Risk of Cancer…Here’s How!

Many of us know that smoking is a leading cause of cancer. Tobacco use is responsible for a third of all cancers in the United States. But did you know that just as many cancers are due to poor diet and being overweight?

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), for most Americans who do not use tobacco, the most important cancer risk factors that can be modified are body weight, diet, and physical activity. Getting regular physical activity and eating a nutritious diet that is low in fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can also reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease.

“We all know fruits and vegetables are good for us,” says Niyati Parekh, PhD, RD, Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Public Health at New York University’s Steinhardt School and a member of the NYU Cancer Institute. “It’s just a matter of how driven you are.”

Knowledge is important, but motivation is key, Dr. Parekh notes. Diet and exercise guidelines recommend regular physical activity and five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. So how do you work more activity into your busy week? Or build more fruits and veggies into your diet? Or maintain a healthy weight when you’re confronted with pastries and other treats in your office kitchen? We’ll give you some tips to start you on your way.

The Facts and the Evidence

The ACS updates its Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention about every five years. The latest guidelines advise people to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (like running) every week (an hour a day of activity for kids); to limit the amount of time spent sitting; to limit intake of processed and red meats; to eat 21⁄2 cups of fruits and vegetables each day; to incorporate whole grains into the diet; and to limit alcohol intake. (See page 9 for specific guidelines.) The ACS recommendations are based on epidemiological studies  —  research done in large populations to identify risk factors for cancer and quantify their impact. For example, studies have found that:

  • Being overweight or obese raises the risk of cancers of the breast, colon/rectum, uterus, esophagus, kidney, and pancreas, and may increase the risk of lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and gallbladder, liver, cervix, ovarian, and aggressive prostate cancers.
  • Physical activity may reduce the risk of breast, colorectal, uterine, and advanced prostate cancers.
  • Higher vegetable and fruit intake reduces cancer risk.

What You Can Do Today

Even if you’ve never walked around the block or cooked a fresh vegetable, it’s not too late to start making changes to your diet and exercise routine. Here’s how to get started:

1. Visit your local farmers’ market. See what produce is in season. Try products you’ve never had before. “Increasing fruit and veggie intake doesn’t have to be boring. Mix the types and colors of your produce to keep it interesting,” says Dr. Parekh.

2. Add fruit to your breakfast. One way to start eating more fruits and veggies is to add one serving of fruit at breakfast, like sliced banana on your cereal or orange slices alongside your toast. Gradually add another serving at lunch, and eventually step up your intake at dinner.

3. Don’t shy away from canned or frozen. There’s no harm in eating fruits and vegetables that are canned or frozen (as long as they’re not swimming in sugar). They still contain healthy nutrients and fiber and are an acceptable alternative to fresh produce.

4. Give your meals a makeover. You can still have the foods you love while eating a healthy diet. If you crave fish and chips, replace it with broiled fish and mashed potatoes instead. Use less cheese in your macaroni and cheese, and mix in some spinach for added color and nutrients.

5. Plan it, pack it. You don’t have to eat out or get take-out at lunchtime. Take a few extra minutes before you go to work to make a sandwich and some healthy snacks, or pack leftovers to reheat at lunchtime.

6. Take extra steps…literally. Studies show that sedentary behavior — such as sitting — is an independent risk factor for cancer. “Even if you get your 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week, if you’re sitting around or sleeping the rest of the time, it’s not good,” explains Dr. Parekh. Limit your time spent in front of a computer or television. If you are watching TV, get up and walk in place during commercials. If you sit in an office most of the day, get up frequently for small breaks.

7. Go the distance. Get off the subway or bus one stop earlier and walk the rest of the way, park farther away at the mall or supermarket, or take the stairs. Think of ways you can walk more during your day.

8. Register for a class. Sign up for a new activity at your gym, or slip into a yoga class at lunchtime. Take a class to learn how to cook healthy meals based on fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.

“There’s no doubt that many cancers have a clear link to obesity,” adds NYU Cancer Institute Director William L. Carroll, MD. “We need to change societal factors that contribute to obesity. Overcoming it is a challenge that needs to be started early in life and adopted by families.”



Here’s what the American Cancer Society recommends to reduce your risk of cancer through diet and exercise:

Achieve and maintain a healthy weight throughout life.

  • Be as lean as possible throughout life without being underweight.
  • Avoid excess weight gain at all ages. For those who are overweight or obese, losing even a small amount of weight has health benefits and is a good place to start.
  • Get regular physical activity and limit your intake of high-calorie foods and drinks to help maintain a healthy weight.

Be physically active.

  • Adults: Get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these), preferably spread throughout the week.
  • Children and teens: Get at least 1 hour of moderate or vigorous intensity activity each day, with vigorous activity on at least 3 days each week.
  • Limit sedentary behavior such as sitting, lying down, watching TV, and other forms of screen-based entertainment.
  • Doing some physical activity above the usual activities, no matter what your level of activity, can have many health benefits.

Eat a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods.

  • Choose foods and drinks in amounts that help you get to and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Limit how much processed meat and red meat you eat.
  • Eat at least 21⁄2 cups of vegetables and fruits each day.
  • Choose whole grains instead of refined grain products.

If you drink alcohol, limit your intake.

  • Drink no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 per day for men.

Source: American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention, 2012. For more specific information, visit

MyPlate was created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help people make healthy choices at every meal. This diagram shows the recommended portions of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy products. To learn more about healthy eating and adding physical activity to your life, visit More information about healthy eating can also be found at