Bad news, booze and beef lovers.
The American Cancer Society has updated its diet and physical activity recommendations to help prevent cancer — and the new guidelines released on Tuesday discourage consuming red meat, processed food, sugar-sweetened drinks — and all alcohol.
The combination of these risk factors (as well as being physically inactive) accounted for at least 18.2% of cancer cases and 15.8% of cancer deaths in the U.S. in 2014, the American Cancer Society reported — making this unhealthy combo the biggest cancer risk factor after cigarette smoking in both men and women.
While the American Cancer Society has advised limiting the consumption of alcoholic drinks to no more to than one per day for women, and two for men since 2012, the new recommendations draw a harder line. “It is best not to drink alcohol,” it says. Period.
For people who still choose to imbibe, the revised guidance reiterates sticking to just one drink a day for women and two for men. And it should be noted that a standard single “drink” is defined as 12 ounces of regular beer, five ounces of wine, and a 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits or liquor, which may be smaller than what you actually pour yourself. For example, the University of Cambridge has noted that the average wine glass today holds 15 ounces — or three servings’ worth.
“That recommendation is the synthesis of the evidence and science that finds any amount of alcohol has been shown to increase cancer risk, including breast cancer,” Laura Makaroff, the senior vice president of Prevention & Early Detection at the American Cancer Society, told MarketWatch. “So the recommendation is to limit alcohol. It’s best not to drink, but if you choose to drink, do so in a moderate way.”
The American Cancer Society regularly revises its prevention recommendations, and the new updates are based on reviews of scientific research conducted by health organizations including: the International Agency on Cancer Research; the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. They were published in “CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.”.
Recent research has warned that many people may need to lay off the sauce. In fact, a recent National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report found that the number of Americans drinking themselves to death has more than doubled over the last two decades. Alcohol was a factor in nearly 1 million deaths between 1999 and 2017. And multiple studies have suggested a link between alcohol consumption and cancer, including a 2019 report published in the journal BMC Public Health that warned drinking one 750-milliliter bottle of wine a week is associated with the same lifetime cancer risk as smoking five cigarettes a week for men, and 10 cigarettes for women. The National Cancer Institute has also reported “clear patterns” between alcohol consumption and developing head and neck cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
The new American Cancer Society guidelines aren’t just tough on alcohol, however. While they previously encouraged a plant-based diet that limited processed meat, red meat and refined grain products, and recommended maintaining a healthy weight, the new suggestions are much more specific. They include limiting or removing all red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, high-processed foods and refined grain products from your diet.
“Especially with colorectal cancer, there is an increased risk with people who choose to consume a lot of red meat,” said Makaroff.
Indeed, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) named processed meat a carcinogen in 2015, announcing it had found “sufficient evidence” that its consumption caused colorectal cancer. The IARC has also said that eating red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” based on links to colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers.
Such diet and health concerns have helped fuel the growth of plant-based meat alternatives like those from Beyond Meat BYND,
The American Cancer Society recommends piling your plate with a variety of whole, unprocessed foods and vegetables, instead. It highlights dark green, red and orange veggies in particular, as well as fiber-rich legumes like beans and peas. The guide also promotes whole grains, whole fruits in a variety of colors, and overall foods that are “high in nutrients in amounts that help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.”
“The emphasis here is really about following a healthy eating pattern,” said Makaroff. “When you fill your plate with all of the good things — vegetables, fiber-rich legumes, whole fruits and whole grains — then you’re going to have less room for red and processed meat, which keeps them limited and in moderation.”
Physical activity guidelines have been pumped up, as well. While the American Cancer Society previously recommended engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-activity each week, it now encourages adults to attempt doubling that. “Adults should engage in 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week,” it reads, adding, “achieving or exceeding the upper limit of 300 minutes is optimal.”
Makaroff noted that reminders to stay active are vital during the coronavirus pandemic. “Many people generally lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle anyway, but then with COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders, and all of these things we’ve recently gone through and are still going through, keeping an eye on our physical activity is maybe more important than ever, and making sure we are as active as we can be,” she said.
The American Cancer Society recommendations also recognize that access to whole, nutritious foods or safe places to exercise can be challenging for many people. Research suggests that racial inequality runs through education, health care, clean water and sanitation. “Your Zip Code matters a lot more than your genetic code,” said Makaroff. “The environments that we live, learn, work and play in are some of the biggest predictors of our overall health, which includes our risk of cancer.”
So the guidance also calls on public, private and community organizations to implement policy and environmental changes to: increase access to affordable, nutritious foods; provide safe, enjoyable, and accessible opportunities for physical activity; and limit alcohol for all individuals. “Those kinds of community actions are needed to be in place everywhere to help reduce systemic inequities,” said Makaroff.
Read the updated American Cancer Society guidelines in full here. And tips for adopting a healthier diet, squeezing in more exercise and losing weight can also be found in MarketWatch’s no B.S. guide to losing weight.
The American Cancer Society projects that 1.8 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. this year. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the CDC, killing around 600,000 people a year. The No. 1 killer is heart disease.
And after fighting for their lives, many cancer survivors wind up fighting for their livelihoods. As new chemotherapy treatment and supportive drug-based treatment often tops $ 10,000 a month, almost one in four of America’s roughly 17 million cancer survivors struggle to pay their medical bills after treatment.
What’s more, an estimated 20% to 30% of survivors do not go back to work three to 18 months after diagnosis, according to the American Journal of Managed Care. And just 57% of low-income women kept their jobs after cancer treatment, compared with 90% of middle-income and 95% of high-income women.