UK as bad as the US for lifestyle-related cancers

The proportion of cancer cases that could have been prevented through diet, physical activity and weight is just as high in the UK as in the United States, according to a cancer expert.

Professor Martin Wiseman, Scientific and Medical Adviser for World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), has highlighted estimates that about a third of cases of the most common cancers in the UK could have been prevented through healthy eating, physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight.

This is similar to the US, which is renowned for its high rates of obesity, although rates of obesity are lower in the UK Britons drink more alcohol.

Professor Wiseman said: “Because we read so much about America’s problems with obesity and junk food, people may find it surprising that the proportion of cancer cases related to diet, physical activity and weight is just as bad here in the UK.

“It is true that a higher proportion of cancer cases in the US are linked to body fat, but not by much. In the US, we estimate that for the seven types of cancer that are weight related, just under 20 per cent could be prevented through people being a healthy weight. In the UK, this figure is about 17 per cent.

But one reason the overall situation in the UK is as bad is the amount of alcohol we drink and this means we need to do more to raise awareness that alcohol increases cancer risk. To take breast cancer as an example, an estimated 20 per cent of cases in the UK can be attributed to alcohol. That is double the estimate for the US.

These estimates are a concern because they mean there are many cases of cancer in the UK every year that could have been prevented by relatively simple lifestyle changes.

But the high proportion of potentially preventable cases also means that as a country we have a lot to gain by making lifestyle changes. In fact, we estimate about 80,000 cases of cancer could be prevented in the UK every year through healthy eating, regular physical activity and weight maintenance.

It is important to emphasise that estimating the proportion of cancer cases that are preventable is difficult and this means that these figures should be treated with caution. But even so, they do give an idea of how high the stakes are and highlight the importance of getting across the message about the potential impact that lifestyle changes can have.”

WCRF has developed 10 recommendations that people can follow if they want to reduce their risk of cancer:

  • Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
  • Be physically active for at least 30 minutes a day.Avoid sugary drinks. Limit consumption of energy-dense foods (particularly processed foods high in added sugar, or low in fibre, or high in salt).
  • Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and pulses such as beans.
  • Limit consumption of red meats and avoid processed meats If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to two for men and one for women a day.
  • Limit consumption of salty foods and food processed with salt.
  • Don’t use supplements for cancer prevention.
  • It’s best for mothers to breastfeed exclusively for up to six months and then add other liquids and foods.
  • After treatment, cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention.

As well as following these recommendations, people should remember that not smoking or using tobacco is the single most important thing for preventing cancer.

WCRF also has recommendations for how changes across society could prevent cancer by making it easier for people to make healthy choices. These are available online at

Notes to editors:

The estimates on cancer preventability are from a preventability study included in the WCR Report Policy and Action for Cancer Prevention. The report can be downloaded from

The 12 common types of cancer the estimates cover are mouth, pharynx and larynx; oesophagus; lung; stomach; pancreas; gallbladder; liver; bowel; breast; endometrium (womb lining); prostate; and kidney.