How to prevent cancer: putting all the evidence together

The WCRF network’s programme, the Global Cancer Update Programme, aims to bring together all the scientific research on how diet, nutrition and physical activity affect cancer risk and survival.

Every year, thousands of studies on cancer are published. Imagine if every scientist, research group, health professional and policymaker had to read every study that comes out and piece together the cancer jigsaw themselves. That would be a colossal duplication of effort.

Thirty years ago, World Cancer Research Fund began work on an ambitious project to analyse and summarise all of the relevant research. A large database was constructed to bring together all the research from around the world on diet, body weight, physical activity and cancer.

The database now contains over 12,000 publications. These papers are then analysed by a team of researchers at Imperial College London, funded by World Cancer Research Fund. We call it the Global Cancer Update Programme (formerly known as the Continuous Update Project).

How the Global Cancer Update Programme works

The researchers at Imperial College London pull together all relevant research on diet, weight, physical activity and cancer. The process goes something like this: 

  1. The researcher analyses the evidence using up-to-date statistical techniques.
  2. WCRF then provides expert judgement on the analysis, including the likelihood that particular risk factors are related to cancer outcomes, via our Panel of independent experts.
  3. WCRF produces our Cancer Prevention Recommendations. These provide expert guidance on how best an individual can reduce their risk of cancer through diet, nutrition and physical activity. We are also developing guidance about how to improve survival after a cancer diagnosis.
  4. Ensure the science is publicly available to scientists, researchers, policymakers, health professionals, and the public.

Diet and Cancer reports

Known as Diet and Cancer reports, we launched the third in the series in 2018. This report brought together all the current evidence on what prevents cancer, and also includes a chapter on breast cancer survival.

We took this as an opportunity to update our Cancer Prevention Recommendations, making them the most reliable blueprint for preventing cancer through diet, nutrition, body weight and physical activity. A growing number of studies from independent research groups show that the more closely you follow our Recommendations, the lower your risk of developing cancer.

Evolution and adaptation

As science evolves, it’s important that we adapt. The goal is to ensure that we will continue to generate the best possible answers to the most important questions.

One key area is expanding our work on surviving cancer. In autumn 2022 we published our review of the role of diet, weight and physical activity after a diagnosis of breast cancer. We found strong evidence that a higher body weight after a breast cancer diagnosis increases a woman’s risk of death. We also found some limited evidence that doing more physical activity lowers her risk of death.

In addition, for the first time at World Cancer Research Fund, we’re investigating how diet, body weight, and physical activity can influence quality of life for women living with and beyond breast cancer.

Other areas of focus include:

  • digging deeper into how cancer develops
  • improving our understanding of how patterns of eating and behaviour affect cancer risk
  • considering how factors across the whole life span link to cancer
  • and critically reviewing the robust process by which we conduct our work.

It’s an exciting time at World Cancer Research Fund and we can’t wait to share the outcomes with our supporters. Watch this space!