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Nutrition and Physical Activity Research Highlights

Obesity, lack of physical activity, and poor diet are major risk factors for cancer, second only to tobacco use. Up to one-third of cancer cases in the U.S. are related to overweight, obesity, lack of physical activity and poor nutrition.

For decades, the American Cancer Society has supported pioneering research to find answers to determine how body weight, diet, and exercise affect cancer risk and survival, and our pursuit of those answers continues today.

From ACS Researchers

The American Cancer Society employs a staff of full-time researchers who relentlessly pursue the answers that help us understand the relationship between nutrition and physical activity and cancer.

One of the main ways Society researchers study the role of nutrition and physical activity in the development and prevention of cancer is through long-term cancer prevention studies, which they have been conducting since 1952.

Researchers in the Society’s Epidemiology Research Program have made and continue to make new discoveries related to nutrition and physical activity by analyzing data on an ongoing basis from Cancer Prevention Study II (CPS-II), which the Society began in 1982. Recent findings include: 

  • Losing 10 or more pounds and keeping it off for at least 5 years might reduce breast cancer risk among postmenopausal women, according to a study conducted by Senior Epidemiologist Lauren Teras, PhD.
  • Men and women with very large waists – 47 inches or larger in men and 42 inches or larger in women – have twice the risk of death from cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease compared with those with the smallest waists – 35 inches or smaller in men and 30 inches or smaller in women, according to research conducted by Society researcher Eric J. Jacobs, PhD. This holds true even for men and women who were not overweight. So inches may be as important as pounds.
  • Reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease is more than a matter of how much you exercise. Society researcher Alpa Patel, PhD studied data on 123,000 participants in the American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study II who had no history of cancer, heart attack, stroke, or lung disease. She found a strong relationship between the amount of leisure time spent sitting and the risk of death, especially in women, that was independent of levels of physical activity. Women who reported more than six hours per day of sitting were 37% more likely to die during the time period studied than those who sat fewer than three hours a day.
  • Individuals who adhered closely to the Society’s nutrition and physical activity guidelines reduced their risk of dying of cancer by 25% to 30%, according to a study conducted by Society epidemiologist Marji McCullough, ScD, RD. McCullough examined data on 112,000 nonsmoking men and women who had participated in the American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study II.


The Society has also begun a new multi-year cancer prevention study, CPS-3, which will yield more findings about the relationship between nutrition and physical activity and cancer in the future.

In addition, Society researchers in other program areas are conducting different types of nutrition and physical activity studies. For example, Society researcher Kerem Shuval, Ph.D. recently discovered that physical activity may help work against some of the negative health effects of sitting too much.

ACS-Funded Research and Training Grants in Nutrition and Physical Activity*

The Society also supports an Extramural Grants program that funds individual investigators engaged in cancer research or training at medical schools, universities, research institutes and hospitals throughout the U.S. Following rigorous and independent peer review, the most innovative research projects are selected for support.

Spotlight on grantees: The following are some of the nutrition and physical activity investigators currently being funded by the American Cancer Society who are working to find the answers that will save more lives and better prevent, treat, and manage cancer.

Genevieve Fridlund Dunton  Genevieve Dunton, PhD, MPH, at the University of Southern California, is studying how people’s thoughts, moods, stress levels, and physiological sensations – such as pain, fatigue, and illness – influence their decisions to participate in physical activities during the day. Dunton is also looking at how neighborhood characteristics impact these behaviors. She plans to use the findings to inform the development of mobile device-based programs for promoting multiple short bouts of physical activity across the day.


Niyati ParekhNiyati Parekh, PhD, at New York University, is studying the relationship between obesity and cancer by looking at the role excess blood insulin – a common issue among the obese – plays in the development and growth of cancer cells. Specifically, Parekh is investigating the connection between diets high in refined carbohydrates including sugars, white flour, and refined grains and the amount of insulin in a person’s blood stream. She hopes the results of the research will provide insights into how to best target the prevention of obesity-related cancers.


Larisa NonnLarisa Nonn, PhD, at the University of Illinois, is investigating the role vitamin D plays in prostate cancer. Specifically, Nonn – using methods unique to her lab – is studying whether vitamin D can be used to alter the levels of a certain type of molecule associated with the development and progression of prostate cancer. Her findings could help open the door for new vitamin D targeted treatments. This is particularly important in prostate cancer as many elderly men – the group at highest risk – are deficient in vitamin D.


close up of test tubesJeremy Johnson, PharmD, PhD, at the University of Illinois, is studying whether the chemical carnosol, found in herbs such as rosemary and sage, can play a role in decreasing the incidence of prostate cancer. Johnson’s research lab has previously found that carnosol disrupts estrogen and testosterone – both of which are linked to the development and progression of prostate cancer. He is now studying if carnosol can be used in the prevention and/or treatment of prostate cancer.


Marcia Haigis  Marcia C. Haigis, PhD, at Harvard Medical School, is studying how cancer cells use sugar and various nutrients to make energy. When a cell becomes cancerous it undergoes a shift in how it uses sugar and nutrients. For example, cancer cells use more glucose (sugar) than normal cells do. Haigis is exploring what causes this change in cancer cells. She thinks it has something to do with a particular enzyme, called SIRT3. Hagis believes that a better understanding of SIRT3 could lead to insights into new ways to protect against the development of cancer.


 *Information current as of August 1, 2014.

Other Ways ACS Promotes Nutrition and Physical Activity

In addition to conducting and funding NUPA research, the American Cancer Society helps promote nutrition and physical activity through education, support services, and advocacy. Explore how the Society helps>