Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in almost every country in the world, but good news is that our diets can play a big part in reducing our overall risk level for cancers like breast cancer, lung cancer, and colorectal cancer. While there are no “miracle foods” and no fail-proof “anti-cancer diet,” according to science, there are foods that are clear nutritional winners and losers when it comes to preventing cancer. Here are the 13 biggest diet upgrades we recommend to reduce your risk.
1. Practice Moderation
One of the most important takeaways researchers have made is not a specific type of food, but its quantity. Obesity and higher levels of body fat are one of the biggest contributors to cancer risk. Overweight and obese people are likely to be diagnosed 2-4 times more often for esophageal adenocarcinoma, two times more often for cancer of the upper stomach, liver, and kidney, 1.5 times more often for pancreatic cancer, 20-60% more often for gallbladder cancer 20-50% more often for meningioma (a type of brain cancer), 30% more often for colorectal cancer, and 10-20% more often for multiple myeloma. Overweight and obese women are up to 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with endometrial cancer. And those with higher BMI also increase their risk of thyroid and ovarian cancer. While reducing the total quantity of food you eat is a great way to lose weight, you can also begin an exercise program or eat the same volume of food, with simple adjustments towards lower calorie foods. See below!
2. Avoid Alcohol
An easy way to cut empty calories is to cut alcohol, one of the few foods that have been repeatedly and strongly shown by studies to cause cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol is linked to cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, colon and rectum. The type of alcohol doesn’t matter (yes, we’re talking to you, red-wine lovers). Even one drink is too many; the more you drink the higher your risk.
3. Avoid Sugary Drinks
Another beverage on the cancer chopping block is sugary drinks. Think soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, added sugar in coffee and tea, sugar-sweetened juice, and yes, even, those lattes that are really more sugar than coffee. According to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), sugary drinks are a prime contributor to weight gain, which increases risk for most types of cancers.
4. Try Tea
With all this focus on avoiding beverages, you might be wondering, what you should drink. Tea makes a great substitute. While there is limited data on tea’s effect on many cancers, there is some suggesting that tea might decrease the risk of bladder cancer. Remember to skip the added sugar or honey, which both increase calorie content and could lead to weight gain.
5. Drink Coffee
Looking for another cancer-preventative beverage? Try coffee. Good news for people trying to limit caffeine: the health benefits are the same whether you drink regular or decaf. Research has shown probable evidence that coffee reduces the risk of liver and endometrial cancer, and likely reduces the risk of mouth, larynx, pharynx, and skin cancers.
6. Regularly Eat Whole Grains
Whole grains like oats, brown rice, barley, quinoa, bulgur, farro and sorghum and whole grain products like bread and cereal provide more nutrients and fiber than their white or processed counterparts. Fiber keeps us fuller longer, decreasing average calorie intake, which helps maintain a healthy weight. In addition, whole grain foods and the fiber in them likely leads to a decreased risk in colorectal cancer. WCRF and AICR recommend consuming at least 30g of food-based fiber per day.
7. Avoid Fast Food & Processed Foods
If you’re wondering where to squeeze in all those extra whole grains, dumping the fast food and processed foods is a great trade. Not just fast food restaurants, “fast food” and processed foods also include seemingly innocuous conveniences dishes like frozen dinners, canned foods, pre-packaged bakery items, candy, cookies, and anything made from white (i.e. processed) flour. It’s not the speed at which these foods are made (veggie stir fry is super fast!), the issue is that these foods are usually high in starch, fat, and calories, and are consumed in large portions. Not only does this increase risk for obesity, a cancer risk factor, but the high-glycemic index of these foods is a probable cause for endometrial cancer, independent of weight gain.
8. Load Up On Veggies
Since you’re skipping the burgers and white bread, you’ll hopefully have room for vegetables. Vegetables are high in fiber and low in calories, both contributors to lower body weight which reduces the risk of cancer. Beta-carotene (found in high amounts in carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, lettuce, apricots, red bell peppers, broccoli, and peas) decreases the risk of lung cancer. Carotenoids (found in high amounts in bell peppers, cantaloupe, broccoli, carrots, kale, oranges, mangoes, spinach, tomatoes, yams, and watermelon) may reduce the risk of lung cancer and receptor negative (ER-) breast cancers like triple negative breast cancer. And the vitamin C found in most vegetables may decrease the risk of lung cancer (for smokers) and colon cancer. Non-starchy vegetables (i.e. not potatoes, yams, beets, corn, winter squash), may also reduce the risk of bladder, mouth, pharynx, larynx, nasopharynx, lung, esophagus, stomach, colorectal and ER- breast cancers. The American Cancer Society along with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends 2.5-3 cups of vegetables per day.
9. Eat Fruit Regularly
If you’re looking for an alternative to beloved processed treats like donuts and candy, fruit is a great alternative. In addition to having many of the benefits of vegetables (fiber, low-calories, vitamin C, beta-carotene, carotenoids), there is some evidence that fruit decreases the risk of squamous cell esophagus cancer and lung cancer in current or former smokers. Citrus in particular may decrease the risk of cardia-type stomach cancer. Great fruits to try are apples, strawberries, raspberries, oranges, grapefruit, cherries, cranberries, and grapes. The American Cancer Society along with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends 1.5-2 cups of fruit per day.
10. Skip the Supplements
If you’re loading up on fruits, veggies, and whole grains, chances are, you have more than enough nutrients in your diet. In case that doesn’t convince you, the World Cancer Research Fund points out that taking supplements to prevent cancer (as opposed to something else) can actually increase risk of cancer in some cases. High-dose beta-carotene, for instance, can increase the risk of lung cancer for some people. Save your money and stick to adding healthy foods to your diet.
11. Avoid Red & Processed Meat
Another thing to skip or at least minimize, is red meat (think beef, lamb, pork) and processed meats like sausage, bacon, deli meats, and hot dogs. Red meat and processed meat are likely causes of colorectal cancer. WCRF and AICR recommend skipping processed meat altogether and if you do eat red meat, limit it to 3 servings per week, or about 12-18 ounces per week.
12. Make Pulses The Star
Skipping red meat means you have room for another great plant-based protein: pulses. Pulses include peas, dry beans, and lentils. They are filling, more eco-friendly, lower in fat, a more ethical choice, and are usually cheaper than red meat. Pulses are also high in fiber and low in calories, meaning they’ll help prevent obesity, a risk factor for cancer.
13. Try Soy
Another great alternative to red meat is soy. Soy has been controversial in the past, due to its chemical similarity to estrogen, a female hormone that plays an important part in breast cancer development and treatment. That being said, soy is low in calories and high in fiber, which helps fight obesity. There’s evidence that the isoflavones in soy decrease the risk of lung cancer, and, despite the controversy around breast cancer, soy may decrease all-cause mortality of breast cancer survivors 12 months or more after their cancer diagnosis.
Get our "Thriver Thursdays" EmailGet all the latest cancer prevention and treatment news plus upcoming survivor programs, straight to your inbox every Thursday. Your privacy is important to us.
While we may not be able to control things like our family history, genetic risk, breast density, or whether or not we have a gene mutation like BRCA, we can control our diet. Healthy eating, along with physical activity, quitting smoking, and regular cancer screenings like mammograms and ultrasounds can make a big difference in cancer risk levels and ability to treat cancer if it is found.
Have questions or need support in your cancer journey? Contact us for individual support, or join our monthly survivor support group meetings or Facebook group. We are a non-profit organization run by survivors and thrivers and we are here to help.
- Obesity and Cancer, National Cancer Institute
- Continuous Project Update Report 2018, World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute For Cancer Research
- Diet, National Cancer Institute
- “Eat a Diet Rich in Whole Grains, Vegetables, Fruits, and Beans,” American Institute For Cancer Research
- “Tea: Potential to Support Antioxidant Defenses,” American Institute For Cancer Research
- “American Cancer Society Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity,” American Cancer Society
- “Squash (Winter): Rich in Carotenoids,” American Institute For Cancer Research
- “Tomatoes: Major Source of Lycopene,” American Institute For Cancer Research
- “Strawberries: Boost Antioxidant Defenses,” American Institute For Cancer Research
- “Oranges: Phytocompounds Have Potential to Protect Against Cancer,” American Institute For Cancer Research
- “Coffee: Lowers Risk of Liver and Endometrial Cancers,” American Institute For Cancer Research
- “Soy: Intake Does Not Increase Risk for Breast Cancer Survivors,” American Institute For Cancer Research