New Report, Old Behaviors: How to Make Healthy the New Normal is American’s number one health concern, according to AICR surveys. Yet, a new report shows that as a nation we are shockingly slow to make and support lifestyle changes that could prevent about one-half of all cancer cases – and the accompanying cost, loss and suffering – in the United States.

The Cancer Prevention & Early Detection Facts & Figures (CPED) 2013 from the American Cancer Society reports on trends for tobacco use, obesity, diet, physical activity and screening. Although there’s a slowing in the increase of overweight and obesity, over 2/3 of Americans still fall into this category.

The science is clear: by staying lean, eating a healthful plant-based diet and being physically active Americans could prevent 1/3 – or about 400,000 cases – of the most common cancers every year. Just about every American recognizes that tobacco use and too much sun are cancer risks, but many Americans are not aware of the link between obesity and cancer. In fact, if everyone were a healthy weight, we could prevent over 116,000 cases of cancer every year.

From my 25 years of helping individuals eat a more healthful diet and lose weight, I know awareness isn’t enough to change behavior, but it is a necessary starting point. Beyond that, if you’re trying to lose or maintain weight you need the steps to change to be an easy part of your life – simple to do and supported by friends, family and you employer, school or community. Basically, the healthy choice needs to be the easy and economical choice.

Our nation’s experience with lowering smoking rates could inform how we can reverse the obesity epidemic. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, well-funded comprehensive tobacco control programs, educational campaigns, an increase in cigarette taxes, restrictions on smoking in public places and restrictions on tobacco advertising and promotions targeted to youth appear to have helped reduce rates among youth and adults.

Based on that model, these steps could be a beginning to help us reverse obesity rates:

  1. Americans must clearly understand the health risks of obesity: higher risk for type 2 diabetes (and that means children too), heart disease and many common cancers, including post menopausal breast and colorectal.
  2. Health care providers should discuss with patients and families, the role of excess body fat in chronic disease. And they should counsel individuals about actionable steps to improve their diet, increase their physical activity and be a healthy weight.
  3. Individuals must make the commitment to small, everyday changes that can help them eat smarter, move more and stay lean.
  4. Public policies should emphasize and support healthful foods at school, in workplaces, and restaurants.
  5. Food establishments can promote low calorie beverages, smaller portion sizes, tasty healthful menu items and make the healthful choices the default. For example, vegetables or fruit as the side, with less healthful options costing extra.
  6. Food companies should stop advertising and promoting sugary drinks and unhealthful foods to children.
  7. Insurance providers can provide incentives for companies and individuals to enroll in research based health-promoting programs, including weight loss and physical activity programs.

What can you do today? Take simple steps such as eating at least 2 cups of non-starchy vegetables every day, walking – working up to 60 minutes every day, and limiting portions of high calorie foods, especially those with added fats and sugar. And you can support and encourage those around you who are also making healthy changes.

You can also sign up for the New American Plate Challenge coming soon.