8 Simple Rules to Reduce Your Risk of Dying Early

Back in 2007, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) together with the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) issued their official recommendations on diet, physical activity, and weight management for cancer prevention. They based these recommendations on the best and most comprehensive scientific evidence currently available.

I’m going to tell you what these 8 recommendations are in just a minute, but there’s a more important issue we need to address first, namely: do the recommendations matter?

I mean, if following them made no difference, who needs to bother to know what they are? They only matter if they actually work.

And by “work”, I mean: Do they help you live longer?

Recently, researchers decided to investigate that very question. They took 378,864 participants from nine European countries enrolled into this thing called the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study. And they basically checked—as researchers can do—to see how much these folks were complying with the anti-cancer recommendations. Then they gave everyone a score, with those scoring highest having the greatest compliance with the recommendations and those scoring lowest having the least.

(Remember, a high WCRF/AICR score means you are pretty much following the diet, exercise and weight management recommendations of the two major research institutions (World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research). A low score means you’re pretty much ignoring the recs.)

So the researchers followed these 378,000 folks for a total of 12.8 years, during which 23,828 folks unfortunately passed away. Then they looked to see whether compliance with the recommendations helped keep folks out of that group of 23,828.

That would be something useful to know, wouldn’t it? If following the health guidelines didn’t give you any advantage over someone who ignored them, why bother to follow them?

The researchers developed a scale of 1-6 for men and 1-7 for women, depending on which of the guidelines (6 for men, 7 for women) they consistently followed.

Here’s what they found:

“Participants within the highest category of the WCRF/AICR score (5-6 points in men, 6-7 points in women) had a 34% lower hazard of death compared with participants within the lowest category of WCRF/AICR score (-2 points in men, 0-3 points in women). The WCRF/AICR score was also significantly associated with a lower hazard of dying from cancer, circulatory disease, and respiratory disease”.

Did you get that?

Those who followed these basic recommendations wound up dead 34% less of the time than those who didn’t. Your risk of being in the “wound up dead” group at the end of almost 13 years was reduced by 34% just by following these simple recommendations. And, not just being dead, but specifically being dead from cancer, circulatory disease (i.e. heart and brain disease) and respiratory disease (i.e. lung).

Now do you want to know what the eight recommendations are?

I thought so.

Caveat emptor—for my part, I don’t agree with every single word that follows, but I agree with the majority of them and with the spirit of the others if not the letter. Obviously, for example, I believe strongly in dietary supplementation and believe that many of the nutrients I take on a daily basis do work in some way to reduce the risk of cancer. And for those consuming grass-fed meat, I don’t agree that it needs to be limited to 16 ounces a week. But, really, people, these are details, and not the kind in which the devil is found. Basically, these are seven easy-to-follow recommendations that ought to make a lot of difference and save a whole lot of lives if they were followed regularly.

So here, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the eight basic recommendations for diet, physical activity and weight management for cancer prevention from two of the most respected and esteemed research organizations in the world, the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research:

  1. Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight
  2. Be physically active as part of your everyday life
  3. Limit consumption of (high-calorie) foods; avoid sugary drinks
  4. Eat mostly foods of plant origin
  5. Limit intake of red meat (i.e. <500 g a week, i.e. 16-18 ounces) and avoid processed meat
  6. Limit consumption of alcoholic drinks (2 or less a day for men, 1 or less a day for women)
  7. Limit consumption of salt—specifically, limit consumption of processed foods with added salt to ensure an intake of <6 grams a day (2400 mg of sodium)
  8. Aim to meet nutritional needs through diet alone (i.e. dietary supplements are not recommended for cancer prevention).

In a time when nutrition info and recommendations are becoming increasingly complex, it’s good to have a touchstone document or two reminding us of the basics.

And speaking of the basics, here are mine:

  • Eat real food.
  • Move around a lot.
  • Have a healthy respect for all the stuff we do not fully understand yet, especially when it comes to weight, obesity and disease.
  • Do the best you can.
  • Eat a lot of plants.
  • Don’t drink too much and don’t eat foods with a ton of added sodium.
  • Don’t eat sugar, don’t eat trans fats, eat dessert once a week.
  • Stay out of McDonald’s.
  • Aim for a nutrient-dense diet and stop drinking soda.
  • Be happy, count your blessings, contribute to others.
  • Make Love, frequently.
  • Play with an animal.
  • Get some sun.
  • Leave the toilet seat down.
  • Did I mention moving around a lot? (Just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.)

We may not know everything, but we do know some things, and one thing I know—with absolute certainty—is what my grandmother would have said if she had been asked what she thought of the eight recommendations listed above:

She would’ve said two words: “Couldn’t hurt”.

And she would have been— as grandmothers tend to be— absolutely, 100% right.

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  • Diane

    Dr. Jonny,
    These are great tips! I just finished reading your book about cholesterol and am reading the 150 healthiest foods on earth. It is pretty fun to learn all about the great foods that are out there and all the nutrients they have. However, I barely made it through the chapter (in the cholesterol book) about stress because it gave me a panic attack. I have anxiety and am prone to these attacks on a regular basis. Now I am afraid of what they will do to me. I heard that they are harmless, but whenever I have one, I fear the worst is happening. Since you are a psychologist (also), what tips do you have for me, especially in reducing my fear and stress?

    • good question! People i know and people in my family have had panic attacks, and i completely sympathize– no fun whatsoever. And i wish i had a magic wand to make them go away. But i can tell you that there are techniques you can use to minimize them, and that in any case, the kind of stress i was talking about was the unrelenting, constant, stress many of us are under on a daily basis and that we ignore. The panic attack is at least time limited, and has an end to it. Please look into different methods of stress management and perhaps talk to a cognitive behavior therapist..


      • Diane

        I am seeing a therapist and also have medication to help rev of my parasympathetic response and rev down the sympathetic one. Seems to help. Also I just need to stop worrying! Then I don’t have anxiety. The panic attack usually creeps in in the evening when I am worn down. Thanks for the advice!

  • Susan

    No mention of fat consumption. I thought fats were important in the diet especially to brain function. I’m not speaking of the ‘bad’ fats but of olive oil, coconut oil, etc.

    • hugely important. I include fats as things that either come with the food (i.e. meat, coconut) or are added in the cooking process (butter, coconut oil, olive oil) or in salad preparation. I obviously do NOT believe in low fat diets.


  • Marvin Lewis

    S–t. That sounds a lot like saying,”Be poor.”

  • Brenda

    Well done, Dr. Jonny! I love your list.

  • Doug Truter

    Some years ago I was watching TV and an American dietitian who was attending a conference in Darwin was being interviewed. At one point he mentioned a meeting he had had at the hotel with two elderly brothers, who had worked their whole lives in the outback cutting trees. Because of their isolation, he was curious about their diet. They told him that all they had eaten over the years was meat, bread, jam and tea. He then said to them “You know, with everything I know about diet, you should be dead by now.” [Perhaps the hard work they did counteracted some of the bad diet? Perhaps they were part of a ‘lucky’ statistic?]]

    • you never know. But i do believe that exercise is one of the best predictors of health and longevity and may counter an awful lot of other “mistakes”


      PS the two brothers might have done just as well on meat and tea– i doubt the bread and jam added much. And they might have done even better if they’d added some veggies. Who knows?

  • Mike

    You mentioned with regards to point 8; “Aim to meet nutritional needs through diet alone (i.e. dietary supplements are not recommended for cancer prevention)”. I think it’s very difficult to find foods that contain the dosage of minerals, vitamins, digestive enzymes and other co-factors for the amounts that my body requires. Furthermore, most foods do not always contain the same amounts of required nutrients and can be unpredictable to know whether I’m getting enough at any given time. Should the foods be mostly raw or cooked? With regards to point 7, can you also be much more liberal with regards to consuming more “sea salt” rather than consuming just “salt”? Finally what about consuming enough iodine in the form of both iodide and elemental iodine and how much should we consume? Thanks.

    • i agree with you which is why i mentioned that i’m not 100 percent in agreement with all the recommendations– i’m a big believer in supplements and use them all the time– but the SPIRIT of the recommendations is good (i.e. try to get as many nutrients as you can from food). Raw or cooked? How bout both? I think we’d all do better with a percentage of raw food in our diet, but i don’t believe that percentage needs or should be 100 percent.


  • Newport Carl

    Good stuff Jonny … Add ,’. be the most positive person in the room, ,be grateful for even winning the lottery we call life (that you were ever born is astonishing)

  • Love your recommendations Dr. J! And I am pleasantly surprised that the two most respected research institutions are giving recommendations for once that “couldn’t hurt!”

  • Jonny, regarding exercise: in your book on living longer, you recommended walking 30 minutes a day. More recently, you have been a big advocate of high intensity interval training. For longevity, do you still advocate walking or more of the HIIT?

    • very interesting question! goes to the question of “what do you want to accomplish”?– for overall health and longevity, it’s hard to beat plain old daily walking. But if you’re trying to lose weight, get fit and add muscle, HIT is the way to go.


  • Lynn Testa

    Hi, My husband and I just purchased your program this evening & are excited to begin. I am interested in the last comment regarding High Intensity Interval Training. Would this mean going from machine to machine quickly and doing reps more rapidly? Or could this also be Curves 🙂 My concern is for having fibromyalgia and scleroderma, what would be efficient HIIT, that would also be “gentler” for us both? Also being around 60, muscle mass loss is just “wonderful” so you have to get better at it as well as maybe more consistent than in the past. 🙂 Thanks!

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