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May 19, 2021 | 5 minute read

U.S. Adults Falling Short Of Meeting Cancer Prevention Recommendations

By now, you probably know that eating plenty of whole grains, plant foods and following AICR’s other recommendations lowers the risk of many cancers. But if you’re like most US adults, there’s a good chance you’re not meeting many of AICR’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations that are diet-focused, especially when it comes to eating enough fruits, vegetables and fiber, according to a new study.

Published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the study found that over half of adults do not meet several of AICR’s dietary recommendations for cancer prevention. Adults who have overweight are especially less likely to follow the recommendations compared to people classified as a normal weight. The findings add insight into understanding how Americans’ habits align with specific cancer prevention recommendations and emphasizes the importance of supporting healthy behaviors.

This year, an estimated 1.9 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. Tens of thousands of these cases are preventable with diet, physical activity and healthy lifestyle changes.

A Slice of Americans’ Habits

The study analyzed dietary data from close to 31,000 adults who were part of the Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Participants had regularly answered questions about their eating, exercise and other habits, along with information on health and weight. Food and beverage intake for this study was pulled from responses of a 24-hour dietary recall that was collected.

Slightly less than a third of the group was categorized as a normal weight, another third had overweight and the rest were categorized as having obesity. Researchers then calculated how each person’s eating habits aligned with AICR’s dietary recommendations for cancer prevention.

One of the recommendations that challenges most Americans relates to fiber and whole grains intake. AICR recommends eating a variety of whole grains that provide at least 30 grams of fiber daily. Overall, only about 10 percent of Americans are consuming the recommended amount of dietary fiber. Among adults who have obesity, even fewer – 8 percent – are meeting this recommendation. Fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, beans and nuts are all packed with fiber. AICR research shows that eating at least three servings of whole grains daily lowers the risk of colorectal cancer.

Eating enough fruits and non-starchy vegetables for cancer prevention was also low. About 37 percent of Americans at a normal weight adhered to AICR’s fruit and non-starchy vegetables recommendation; only 30 percent of adults having obesity met this recommendation. For this study, adults were counted as meeting the recommendation if they consumed 2.5 cups of fruits and non-starchy vegetables daily. AICR recommends adults try to eat a minimum of 3.5 to 5 cups of vegetables and fruits each day for overall good health and to lower cancer risk.

Along with fiber, vegetables and fruits contain a variety of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that offer numerous health benefits. In laboratory studies, many of these nutrients and phytochemicals demonstrate anti-cancer effects.

One of the AICR dietary recommendations that most Americans follow is to limit red meat consumption, but even still, only about 50 to 60 percent of Americans meet the recommendation. AICR recommends eating no more than 12-18 ounces (cooked) of beef, pork and other red meats per week. Close to 56 percent of Americans having obesity follow this recommendation and 60 percent of Americans having a normal weight follow the recommendation.

There is strong evidence that eating more than 18 ounces of red meat weekly – and eating even small amounts of processed meat – increases the risk of colorectal cancer.

Cancer Prevention Recommendations

The study has several limitations, such as that the data relies on self-reported intakes and the survey used may not represent the person’s typical eating habits.

The study also did not evaluate physical activity levels, which is linked to lower risk of several cancers – along with numerous health benefits. AICR recommends being physically active at a moderate-vigorous intensity for at least 30 minutes, 5 or more times a week. But only about half of U.S. adults are getting enough physical activity.

Although U.S. adults of all weights are not meeting the dietary recommendations, the finding that fewer adults having obesity meet the recommendations is especially concerning because obesity alone increases the risk of many cancers. Research shows that excess body fat increases the risk of at least a dozen cancers, including post-menopausal breast, liver and colorectal.

“This study shows that regardless of weight status, Americans are not doing a great job following the recommendations,” said Colleen Spees, RDN, PhD, associate professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and one of the study authors. “The main point is that everyone has room for improvement, across all weights, all ethnicities, all classes.”

“Cancer is a chronic disease that involves everyone and chronic disease is a public health crisis,” Spees adds. “This shows that we need to do a better job of conveying and communicating the guidelines, and we need to do a better job of supporting and translating the guidelines to fit peoples’ lives, schedules, budgets and preferences for individuals and their families.”

The study states there is no funding to disclose.

For help following AICR’s Cancer Prevention Recommendation, AICR offers a free online program called the Healthy10 Challenge. You can learn more and join here. 

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