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February 1, 2016 | 6 minute read

Survey: Overwhelming Majority of Americans Are Not Living Cancer-Protective Lives – But Think They Are

Cost and Time Perceived as Key Obstacles, Strategies Needed

WASHINGTON, DC – Most Americans aren’t making the kind of everyday lifestyle choices that protect against cancer – yet many mistakenly believe they are, according to a national survey released today by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

In preparation for National Cancer Prevention Month in February, AICR commissioned a YouGov survey to ask Americans which cancer-protective behaviors they currently engage in and which they do not.

The survey, Living For Lower Cancer Risk in the US 2016, also asked Americans why they weren’t making healthy choices. They cited cost as the main barrier to eating healthier diets, time as the main barrier to being more active, and difficulty as the main barrier to losing weight. A PDF of the full survey report is located at: aicr.org/survey2016.

Unhealthy Diets, Unhealthy Complacency

AICR recommends a plant-based diet in which meat and dairy take up one-third or less of the plate. But according to the survey:

  • Less than a quarter of Americans (23 percent¹) say they are currently following this meal model.
  • Men are much less likely to eat a cancer-protective diet than women: only 18 percent met the “mostly plant-based” standard, compared to 28 percent of women.
  • Unfortunately, 70 percent said they considered their diets to be healthy.²

pie chart
What’s keeping Americans from eating healthier?

  • Thirty-five percent of those who said their diets were not “very healthy” said the most important factor keeping them from eating better was cost.
  • The second most common response was “I have not felt the need to eat healthier,” which was chosen by 17 percent of those asked.
  • A striking gender split emerged among those who did not feel the need to eat healthier: only 10 percent of women who answered this question said they felt no need to eat healthier, compared to 25 percent of men.

“When most Americans are not eating a plant-based diet and understanding that this diet is healthy and cancer-protective, that is cause for concern,” said AICR Head of Nutrition Programs Alice Bender, MS, RDN.

“There are many delicious, convenient and affordable ways to put these colorful, healthy plant foods on your family’s table,” according to Bender. “Fresh produce like carrots and apples, frozen vegetables and canned beans are great ways to start filling out that 2/3 of your plate.”

Americans Overstate Their Activity…

For cancer prevention, AICR recommends avoiding sedentary habits and getting at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. The survey found:

  • Over 2 in 5 Americans (42 percent) said they are getting more than 30 minutes of activity per day.
  • A gender split occurred with those who said they were active for 30 minutes a day, with over half of men (52 percent) reporting that they are exceeding this level of activity, compared to only 1 in 3 (33 percent) women.

But according to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, less than 5 percent of Americans are actually getting 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

What’s keeping Americans from being more active?

  • Twenty-five percent of respondents who said they were getting less than 30 minutes of activity a day said “I don’t have the time” was the most important reason they weren’t more active.
  • Another 13 percent said “It is too difficult.”

“While getting enough physical activity can be challenging,” said AICR’s Bender, “it’s important to work toward building in those 30 minutes every day. You can find just five minutes here and there several times throughout the day to walk or be active; that can add up to moving more.”

Next to not smoking, being at a healthy weight is the single most important thing people can do to lower their cancer risk, as carrying excess body fat is a cause for ten different kinds of cancer. AICR recommends people be as lean as possible without becoming underweight. The survey found:

  • Fully half of Americans (50 percent) said they are either currently overweight (41 percent) or obese (9 percent).
  • Forty-two percent of Americans said they are at a healthy weight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the actual percentage of Americans who are overweight or obese is higher – 69 percent.

“That’s almost 7 in 10 Americans who are at higher risk for many of the most common cancers in the US” said Bender. “So if, as this survey shows, Americans underestimate their weight, that means they’re underestimating their risk as well. And that’s a problem.”

AICR estimates that being a healthy weight could prevent almost 122,000 cases of cancer in the US every year.

What’s keeping Americans from losing weight and keeping it off?

  • Just over 1 in 5 Americans who say they are currently overweight or obese (21 percent) say the most important factor stopping them is that “it is too difficult.”
  • Another 13 percent say they don’t have the time.
  • Almost 1 in 10 Americans who say they are overweight or obese say it costs too much or they don’t know how to start (9 percent and 8 percent, respectively).

“Losing weight and keeping it off is difficult,” said Bender, “but there are research-based strategies than can help. Start with small steps that work for you and your family and over time you’ll find these changes turn into healthy habits that help you feel better and have more energy.”

The Take-Home: Americans Need Help

“Americans need the kind of support that will help them eat healthy meals on a budget and fit more activity into their daily routine,” said AICR Vice President for Programs Deirdre McGinley-Gieser.

“To produce the kind of sweeping, systemic behavior changes that will prevent hundreds of thousands of cancers every year, non-profit organizations like AICR need to work in concert with government, schools and the private sector. Together we can change the nation’s food environment and public spaces in ways that make healthy choices easier to make.”


¹ This figure comprises those who said they eat “Mostly plant foods” (20 percent) or “All plant foods” (3 percent).
² This figure comprises those who said their diets are “somewhat healthy” (56 percent) or “very healthy” (14 percent).

Additional Resources:

AICR Awareness Survey

Preventable Cancer Statistics

Editor’s Notes: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,106 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between November 2-3, 2015. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+). NOTE: Summed figures in this report may not seem to add up. This is due to rounding error – all summed figures were calculated to 2 decimal places.

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