American Cancer Society Updates Cancer Prevention Guidelines

These recommendations can lower your risk of developing cancer.

healthy eating
New ACS guidelines encourage eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Marko Geber / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The American Cancer Society (ACS) has new diet and exercise guidelines for cancer prevention.
  • The ACS recommends trying to get 300 minutes or more of activity a week.
  • Red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and refined grains should be avoided.
  • The ACS recommends avoiding alcohol entirely.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) updates its guidelines on diet and physical activity for cancer prevention every few years. The last update was in 2012 and now, there are new guidelines out for 2020.

The guidelines were published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians and clearly spell out diet and lifestyle changes people can make to lower their risk of developing cancer. Here are the new recommendations: 

  • Try to do more physical activity. The new guidelines recommend aiming to do between 150 to 300 minutes of moderate activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. The ACS says getting 300 minutes of activity or more is ideal. The ACS previously recommended at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.
  • Strive to avoid certain foods entirely. The ACS specifically recommends avoiding red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, highly processed foods, and refined grains. In the past, the ACS recommended limiting those foods.
  • Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The ACS says dark green, red, and orange vegetables, fiber-rich legumes, whole fruits with a variety of colors, and whole grains are beneficial. Previously, the organization recommended eating at least 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day.
  • Avoid alcohol. The ACS says that it is best to completely avoid all alcohol. However, if you choose to drink, the organization says it’s better to have no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. In the past, the ACS recommended having no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.

According to the ACS, at least 18% of all cancer cases in the U.S. are related to a combination of risk factors related to diet and lack of physical activity. Following these lifestyle recommendations is the most important thing you can do to lower your cancer risk, other than not smoking.

What This Means For You

There are certain things about your cancer risk, like genetics, that you can’t change, but these are the factors that are within your control. Doing your best to follow the recommended guidelines should help lower your risk of cancer—and ultimately improve your overall health.

Experts applaud the new guidelines. “I’m very much in support of these new recommendations,” Jane Kakkis, MD, a surgical oncologist and medical director of breast surgery at Memorial Care Breast Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, tells Verywell. “There is compelling data to support the recommendations.”

Diane Riccardi, MPH, RD, of Moffitt Cancer Center, agrees. “The new ACS guidelines are consistent with similar findings from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) Third Expert Report, Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective published in May 2018,” she tells Verywell. “Both the ACS and the AICR guidelines, a result of decades of science, ensure that everyone, from policymakers to members of the public, have access to the most up-to-date information on how to minimize the risk of cancer.”

Why Do Prevention Guidelines Change Over Time?

According to a spokesperson from the American Cancer Society, guidelines are updated “to keep pace with evolving evidence.” New scientific literature is released on a regular basis, and it takes time for organizations like the ACS to review it and make recommendations based on it, Kakkis says.

The latest guidelines are clearly more strict than past recommendations, but Kakkis says that’s a necessary update. “You want to spell things out so that people don’t then try to modify an already modified approach,” she says.

Experts say you should just try to do your best. It’s unlikely that you’ll develop cancer from having the occasional red meat or glass of wine, says Scott Keatley, RD, of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy. “No one should panic if they consume these items in moderation,” he tells Verywell.

Will These Guidelines Help Prevent Cancer Recurrence?

These guidelines are designed to help prevent cancer in people who have never had the disease. The ACS has a different set of guidelines for people with a history of cancer, called the Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines for Cancer Survivors. However, those guidelines have not been updated since 2012.

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  1. Kushi LH, Doyle C, Mccullough M, et al. American Cancer Society Guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention: reducing the risk of cancer with healthy food choices and physical activity. CA Cancer J Clin. 2012;62(1):30-67. doi:10.3322/caac.20140

  2. Rock CL, Thomson C, Gansler T, et al. American Cancer Society guideline for diet and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020. doi:10.3322/caac.21591