Cancer over the past 30 years

World Cancer Research Fund have been looking at the links between cancer and diet for three decades.

At World Cancer Research Fund, we’ve been investigating the links between diet, weight, nutrition and cancer since 1990. In that time, the number of people who are diagnosed with cancer, and the way we understand the disease, has changed dramatically.

For our 30th birthday celebrations in 2020, we looked back at our achievements and how cancer science has changed.

If you have any questions about what we do and why, please get in touch.

> Who are World Cancer Research Fund?
> What are the Cancer Prevention Recommendations?
> How have UK diets changed in 30 years?
> WCRF’s work with young people and families
> How do we know that obesity is a cause of cancer?
> How can I get involved with WCRF?
> WCRF’s work with people living with cancer
> What role does the government have in helping people to be healthier?
> Why are cancer rates increasing but other diseases are on the decline?
> What changes have there been in exercise trends in 30 years?
> Aren’t more people surviving cancer?
> What policies do we have in the UK that encourage people to be healthier?
> What have WCRF achieved in 30 years?

Who are World Cancer Research Fund?

We are a UK cancer charity dedicated to helping people prevent and survive cancer. To do this we fund vital research into diet, weight, physical activity and cancer, as around 40% of cancer cases could be prevented if everyone was healthier – this includes maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, eating a healthy diet and not smoking. We’re also part of a group of cancer charities around the world, known as the World Cancer Reseach Fund network. We share research and knowledge so that together we can prevent more cancer.

When we were founded 30 years ago, the link between diet and cancer wasn’t widely known. But today, thanks in part to our research and promotion, more people are aware that they can lower their risk of cancer. In fact, awareness levels have increased even in the past 10 years. A World Cancer Reseach Fund survey revealed that:

But there’s still a long way to go.

In 1992, we funded just 2 research projects. The World Cancer Research Fund network has now funded more than 500 projects in 23 countries. As well as funding research, we use our global voice to influence health policy at the highest level and we are trusted advisers to governments and other organisations around the world.

What are the Cancer Prevention Recommendations?

We have 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations – 8 that anyone can follow, 1 specifically for cancer survivors, and 1 for women who have babies. These Recommendations are based on the global evidence on diet, weight, physical activity and cancer that we have compiled and analysed for our Third Expert Report: Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective.

We call this project our Global Cancer Update Programme (formerly the Continuous Update Project), and it includes almost 10,000 research papers. This volume of evidence and our rigorous analysis means that the results are reliable – this is what we then turn into practical and easy-to-understand advice.

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise more
  • Eat more fruit, veg, beans and wholegrains
  • Avoid junk food
  • Don’t eat processed meat and limit red meat to 3 portions a week
  • Don’t drink alcohol
  • Don’t drink sugary drinks
  • Don’t rely on supplements
  • If you can, breastfeed your baby
  • After a cancer diagnosis, follow our Recommendations, if you can

By following our Cancer Prevention Recommendations, choosing not to smoke (or giving up smoking) and being safe when in the sun, you’ll have the best chance of living a life free from cancer. A growing number of studies from independent researchers show that the more closely you follow our Recommendations, the lower your risk of developing cancer.

> Find out more about the cancer jigsaw

How have diets changed over the years?

A lot has changed in 30 years; not just what we know about cancer, but fashion, music, food and society as a whole. Over the years, our diets have adapted due to advances in technology that have created greater convenience such as freezers and microwaves. We’re also spending a lower proportion of our wages on food; 24% in 1974 compared with 11% in 2016. We’re also eating out more.

Improved awareness and a desire to be healthier may have played a role in the changes our diets have seen, as the quantity of white bread purchased by households has dropped by 56% from 1992 to 2018, fresh fruit has gone up 23% since 1992, and red meat purchasing has decreased by 32% – although pork sausages are up 18%.

However, it’s not all good news. Alcohol purchasing has increased by 38%, confectionary such as chocolate bars increased by 13%, and pizza (frozen, not-frozen and takeaway) has increased by 143%.

So it’s a complicated picture. We may be eating more healthily in some respects, but we’ve become unhealthier in others – and obesity rates in England have increased from 53% of adults in 1993 to 63% in 2018. That’s why our work focuses on dietary patterns (what you eat as a whole) instead of individual food or ingredients, and our Cancer Prevention Recommendations should be followed as a package – not a ‘pick n mix’.

> Looking to eat more fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy diet? Try our 30-day challenge – Fruit ‘N’ Fiver

WCRF’s work with young people and families

As one of the UK’s leading cancer prevention charities, we know that helping young people get a healthy start in life is really important. It’s in these early years that we form habits that affect our health later in life.

That’s why for more than 20 years we’ve worked to inform and educate children and their families about healthy lifestyles. Back in 1997, we launched the Great Grub Club magazine, which taught children how to eat healthily and be active in a fun way.

Ten years later, with the rise of the internet, we launched our Great Grub Club website, a free website for 4–11-year-olds that included active play ideas, healthy recipes and teaching resources for schools, such as lesson plans and worksheets. We also took the Great Grub Club to the community by holding workshops with families in some of the most deprived areas in London.

To ensure that our resources for families remain current, up-to-date and have a fresh feel for children, we relaunched as Eat Move Learn – a hub of fun, learning resources for children.

As well as giving our health messaging directly to families, we also champion policy change that promotes the health of young people at a structural level. We’re part of CO-CREATE, an innovative EU-funded project that aims to reduce childhood obesity by working with young people to create policy actions that make our environments healthier.

> Find out more about CO-CREATE, the project that aims to cut childhood obesity

How do we know that obesity is a cause of cancer?

World Cancer Research Fund want to live in a world where no one develops a preventable cancer. That’s why our network has funded more than £110 million of research into cancer prevention and survival. This has led to a number of discoveries, including that overweight and obesity increase the risk of at least 13 different types of cancer:

  • mouth, pharynx and larynx cancers
  • oesophageal cancer
  • stomach cancer
  • pancreatic cancer
  • gallbladder cancer
  • liver cancer
  • bowel cancer
  • breast cancer
  • ovarian cancer
  • womb cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • kidney cancer

We know this from a combination of epidemiological evidence (research on patterns across populations) and mechanistic evidence (research into cellular and molecular changes). This research has revealed a number of ways that obesity increases the risk of cancer, including through inflammation, insulin resistance, and over-production of sex hormones. Often, it’s a combination of all of these factors.

The evidence on obesity and cancer is growing, which is why we started off with only 3 cancers strongly linked to obesity in 1997. In 2007, this went up to 8 cancers and then, in 2018, 4 more were added to make it 12.

> Find out more about how obesity increases the risk of cancer

How can I get involved with WCRF?

There are so many ways you can get involved and help us prevent cancer so that we can keep families together for longer.


Take part in one of our events or virtual challenges and raise money for World Cancer Research Fund. We have plenty to choose from: from treks and obstacles races to marathons and cycle rides, we have something for you all.

> Find an event or challenge that suits you

Corporate fundraising

Ask your workplace to support World Cancer Research Fund by matching funds raised or donating a sum towards your fundraising target. You could even get colleagues involved too.

> Get your workplace to support us

Payroll giving

Payroll giving allows you to donate to World Cancer Research Fund from your gross salary (before tax), giving immediate tax relief on these donations.

> Donate via your salary

In memory

Giving in memory is a special way to pay tribute and remember a loved one. You can do this by setting up a fundraising page in someone’s memory, making a donation or holding an event in their honour.

> Start a fundraising page

Fundraise with your celebration

An inspiring and heart-warming way for friends and family to mark your special day by donating to a cause close to your heart.

> Pledge your birthday

Leave a gift in your will

Why not rewrite the future by leaving a gift in your will to help prevent cancer?

> Just 1% can make a difference


Or play our weekly lottery for your chance to win great cash prizes.

> Enter the draw today

Our work for people living with cancer

Our work isn’t just about preventing cancer, but also helping people to live well during and after a cancer diagnosis. We call this our cancer survival work, and as well as funding research into the effect of diet, weight and physical activity on cancer survival, we have several projects under way to help people living with cancer right now to improve their quality of life.

We produce health information, answer common questions, host support groups and cooking classes, and provide a regular e-newsletter.

> More on Living with cancer

What role does the government have in helping people to be healthier?

We know that just telling people to eat healthier food and be physically active isn’t enough, as our daily environments constantly nudge us towards unhealthy choices.

This could be in the form of cheap junk food that is readily available and widely advertised, unhealthy food placed at eye-level for children on shelves in shops, or towns and cities that are not designed to make active transport – such as walking and cycling – easy.

This is why we have a team dedicated to influencing health policy at the highest level – from nutrition labels to sugar taxes, we crunch the details to provide governments and policymakers with the information they need to promote physical activity and reduce obesity.

To address the obesity crisis, we need a whole-of-society approach, which includes efforts from governments as well as civil society, industry and individuals, and requires a broad range of policies that make the healthy option the easy option.

> To find out more about why policy is important, read our blog

Why are cancer rates increasing but other diseases are on the decline?

There were 18 million cancer cases around the world in 2018, a figure that is expected to rise to 30 million by 2040. This increase is due to several factors including:

  • population growth
  • ageing (the longer we live, the more chance we have of developing cancer)

Additionally, the past few decades have seen our lifestyles change: we’re less active and eat more processed foods high in fat, salt or sugar. And this has contributed to the rise in cancer worldwide, not least because of the effect on weight gain.

This change to a more ‘Western type’ diet across the globe is known as the nutrition transition, and is one of the reasons cancer rates continue to grow while many infectious diseases, such as smallpox, have been almost completely eradicated.

However, this does not mean we should give up. In fact, many advances in treatment and diagnosis mean that more people are surviving cancer than ever before.

But with this growing global burden, preventing cancer should be a public health priority, as around 40% of cancer cases could be prevented if everyone was healthier.

> Read our 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations

What changes have there been in exercise trends in 30 years?

Physical activity is any movement that uses our muscles and requires more energy than sitting still. Being physically active helps us to maintain a healthy weight – by making it easier to balance out the calories we eat with the energy we use – and protects us against cancer.

However, new technologies have encouraged people to increase the time they spend being inactive (sedentary) such as sitting in cars, watching television and using computers.

In 1995, the UK government advice on physical activity changed to try to get people to be more active. It went from recommending vigorous activity at least three times per week for 20 minutes or more on each occasion, to 30 minutes of moderate activity on a daily basis (at least 5 days a week) – these are the current guidelines.

By 2018, the number of adults exercising in England had doubled since 1997 (68% of men and 64% of women, up from 32% of men and 21% of women). However, what’s troubling is that fewer than 2 in 10 children in England (20% of boys and 14% of girls) are meeting these guidelines; a drastic decrease from 2002 where more than 6 in 10 children were active (70% of boys and 61% of girls).

Clearly, levels of physical activity vary drastically across age, gender and socioeconomic group – activity levels decrease as deprivation increases, from 72% active in the least deprived areas, to 57% in the most deprived areas in 2018. 1 in 5 children are overweight or obese when they start primary school – this increases to 1 in 3 children at the end of primary school.

Given the importance of being physically active to prevent cancer, it’s vital that people of all ages and all backgrounds are encouraged and empowered to be as active as possible.

> What are governments around the world doing to increase physical activity levels?

Aren’t more people surviving cancer?

Cancer survivors are people who have recovered from the disease. Survival rates vary for different cancers but are highest for the following cancers:

  • bowel
  • prostate
  • melanoma
  • endometrial
  • breast

Many more people are now surviving cancer due to earlier diagnosis and better treatment. One-year survival for all cancers has increased from 62% in 2001 to 72.8% in 2016.

This doesn’t make the case for prevention any less persuasive though. Even after cancer treatment, many people still experience life-altering side-effects such as:

  • fatigue
  • increased risk of diabetes
  • increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • cancer recurrence

That’s why World Cancer Research Fund is also dedicated to cancer survival research, looking at ways to improve the quality of life of people living with and beyond cancer through diet, weight and physical activity.

> Read more about our cancer survival research

What policies do we have in the UK that encourage people to be healthier?

Policies can be used to change food and physical environments to help people make healthier choices. Below are some examples from the UK – you can find these and more from around the world in our NOURISHING and MOVING databases.

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy, implemented in 2018 aims to tackle childhood obesity by discouraging consumption of soft drinks and encouraging companies to lower sugar content in soft drinks. The Levy was designed to raise revenues to be used to fund physical activity in schools.

The Front of Pack Labelling Scheme (2013) is another policy implemented in the UK with the aim of influencing consumer choices, indirectly motivating companies to put healthier products on the market, and thus creating healthier food environments. The front-of-pack labels used on pre-packaged foods in the UK are colour-coded in green, amber and red. They signal whether products contain low, medium or high levels of calories, fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar.

Policy must evolve to keep track with changes in our environments that make the healthier choices more difficult. The UK government recently announced a national strategy on tackling obesity that recognises that our environments play a huge part in shaping our choices. As part of this plan, a national consultation opened to gather evidence on how the current Front of Pack Labelling Scheme is being used in the UK and how effective it is compared with other front-of-pack labels, such as in France and Chile.

This front-of-pack labelling consultation highlights the importance of learning about how different countries address obesity, as governments across the world innovate to keep up with changes in our environments that nudge us towards unhealthy choices.

> Explore our NOURISHING and MOVING databases

What has WCRF achieved in 30 years?

WCRF 30 year timeline