Updated diet, physical activity guidelines for cancer prevention

June 15, 2020 in Cancer Prevention, Healthy Eating, Nutrition Topics in the News, Sports Nutrition and Exercise

Updated diet, physical activity guidelines for cancer prevention

In June 2020, the American Cancer Society (ACS) released updated lifestyle recommendations to help lower cancer risk.  The advice, last updated in 2012, is based on a comprehensive review of the latest evidence.

The revised guideline places an increased emphasis eating less red meat and fewer highly processed foods and avoiding or limiting alcohol. It also increases the recommended levels of physical activity.  

At least 18 per cent of all cancer cases in the United States are related to a combination of poor diet, overweight, physical inactivity and alcohol consumption. In Canada, it’s also estimated that 18 per cent of cancers could be prevented by eating well, being active and maintaining a healthy weight.

Physical Activity


Adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week. 


Adults are advised to get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (e.g., brisk walking, doubles tennis) per week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (e.g., running, spinning, singles tennis).  Hitting or exceeding the upper limit of 300 minutes is considered optimal.

Children and teens should get at least an hour of physical activity each day.

What to eat


Consume a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods. Choose foods and beverages in amounts that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Limit consumption of processed meat and red meat. Eat at least 2.5 cups of vegetables and fruits each day. Choose whole grains instead of refined grain products. 


Follow a healthy eating pattern at all ages. A healthy eating pattern includes:

  • Foods that are high in nutrients in amounts that help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • A variety of vegetables--dark green, red, and orange, fiber-rich legumes (beans and peas), and others
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits with a variety of colors
  • Whole grains

The foundation of a healthy eating pattern is mostly plants – vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, beans and lentils and nuts and seeds.  It also includes healthy proteins, such as fish and poultry, and unsaturated fats.

The revised diet recommendation emphasizes eating a variety of vegetables, especially ones that are dark green (e.g., spinach, kale, broccoli, rapini), red (e.g., beets, red bell pepper, red cabbage, radicchio) and orange (e.g., carrots, butternut squash, sweet potato).

It also highlights including whole fruit, in a variety of colours, in your diet. In Canada, a low fruit intake is among the top five leading preventable causes of cancer.

To lower cancer risk, a daily intake of at least 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables and 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit is advised.

Advice to eat whole grains, which are strongly tied to protection against colorectal cancer, is also emphasized. So is the recommendation to include lentils and bean (e.g., black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas) in your diet.

What to eat less of

  • Red and processed meats
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Highly processed foods and refined grain products

Because it’s not known if there is a safe level of intake for red and processed meat, the new guideline does not advise on consumption limits. Instead, the ACS recommends choosing fish, poultry and beans more often than red meat and to eat processed meats sparingly, if at all.

Foods high in added sugars, especially sugar-sweetened beverages, should also be limited or avoided since they’re associated with risk of weight gain or obesity, which itself is a risk factor for 13 types of cancer.

Highly processed foods, which contain little, if any, whole foods, should also be limited. These foods are typically higher in fat, added sugars and sodium, contain numerous additives and are lacking fibre and protective phytochemicals.

Ultra-processed foods include chicken nuggets, chicken strips, cereal bars, granola bars, fruit leather, breakfast cereals, frozen waffles, cookies, potato chips, pretzels, crackers, soft drinks, candy, processed meats, frozen dinners, instant noodles, frozen pizza, fast food and more.

Alcoholic beverages


If you drink alcoholic beverages, limit consumption. Drink no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 per day for men. 


It is best not to drink alcohol. People who do choose to drink alcohol should limit their consumption to no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. 

Weight control

Being overweight or obese is clearly linked with a greater risk of several types of cancer. The ACS guideline recommends to “keep your weight within the healthy range, and avoid weight gain in adult life”.

Source: American Cancer Society Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention; CA Cancer J Clin, June 9, 2020.

All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.