Updated: Feb 7
You can influence any number of your daily lifestyle practices, including nutrition, to reduce your risk of being diagnosed with cancer. There are several choices you can take on to make a significant difference in your cancer risk or recurrence. Adopting an anti-cancer diet is an important part of this effort.
What is an anti-cancer diet, exactly? A cancer-fighting diet is part of a healthy lifestyle that includes a variety of nutritious foods. The good news is that a healthy dietary pattern can reduce your cancer risk by 10-20%, according to Harvard Health.
While no single food or habit is guaranteed to cause cancer, no single food or habit is guaranteed to prevent it. It is critical that you understand that being diagnosed with cancer is not the fault of anyone. Many factors in cancer growth are beyond a person's control.
Enjoying your anti-cancer diet
However, many people are unaware that we have anti-cancer recommendations. According to the World Cancer Research Fund International, the following are the top cancer prevention diet, nutrition, and physical activity recommendations:
Maintain a healthy ratio of muscle and body fat
Be physically active
Enjoy a better diet
Limit “fast foods”
Limit red and processed meat
Cut down on sugary drinks
Limit alcohol consumption
Do not use supplements for cancer prevention
Breastfeed your baby if you can
Avoid smoking and other exposure to tobacco
Don’t get excess sun exposure
This article will teach you more about some of these diet and nutrition-related recommendations so that you can use your power to lower your risk of cancer. You'll also receive some objectives, tips, and strategies for making them work for you.
Fact: The healthy nutrition strategies in this article can reduce your risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic diseases associated with aging, in addition to cancer.
How to enjoy an anti-cancer diet to reduce your cancer risk
Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, mushrooms, and legumes such as beans and lentils. These foods help to reduce cancer risk in a variety of ways. They are high in essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber, for example. Many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes also contain antioxidants and other health-promoting compounds.
Fact: Fiber is a type of carbohydrate found in plants that promotes health. It's a special kind of carbohydrate because our bodies can't break it down to digest it. This is extremely beneficial to your digestive system. For one thing, fiber can make you feel more satisfied while also assisting your digestive system in keeping things moving and promoting regularity. Fiber also helps to maintain a healthy gut microbiome by feeding your beneficial gut bacteria. Fiber from foods is preferred over fiber supplements whenever possible.
Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are high in fiber and high in antioxidants and protein. These foods have been shown to help prevent many cancers, including colorectal cancer. Non-starchy fruits and vegetables also help to prevent cancer, including cancers of the mouth and throat, and ER- breast cancer.
Berries are part of an anti-cancer diet
Aim for at least five cups of fruits and vegetables and at least 30 grams of fiber per day. This can be accomplished by including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes in all meals and as snacks. These are some examples of these foods:
Fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors, such as tomatoes, carrots, pineapple, broccoli, bell peppers, leafy greens, and blueberries
Brown rice, whole wheat, and oats are examples of whole grains.
Black beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), and lentils are examples of legumes.
How to limit “fast foods” for your anti-cancer diet
"Fast foods" are convenience foods that are frequently highly processed. "Processed" indicates that they have been heavily manufactured and do not resemble their natural state. (Think of an apple picked from a tree and how much it goes through to become part of an apple pie). Burgers, fried chicken, potato chips, fries, cakes, pastries, candies, and candy bars are all examples of fast foods.
Many fast foods are designed to be extremely tasty ("highly palatable") and to be consumed frequently and in large quantities. Fast food is almost always high in fat, salt, starches, and sugars. They also typically have a long shelf life, allowing them to be stored for an extended period of time (e.g., they are not "fresh" foods that wilt or go bad quickly). Eating too many fast and highly processed foods has been linked to overeating, insulin resistance, blood sugar imbalances, and high blood pressure.
The goal of lowering your cancer risk and improving your overall health is to limit your consumption of fast food.
How to limit red and processed meat to reduce your cancer risk
Meat is high in protein, iron, zinc, and Vitamin B12. However, eating too much red and processed meat has been linked to a variety of cancers, with colorectal cancer being the most strongly linked.
Beef, pork, veal, lamb, and goat are examples of red meat. Meat that has been salted, smoked, cured, or fermented is considered processed meat. These procedures are carried out to improve the flavor of the meat as well as to preserve and extend its shelf life. Hot dogs, bacon, salami, sausages, and deli meats such as ham are examples of processed meats.
Red and processed meats can increase the risk of cancer because they may contain or produce cancer-causing substances when processed and cooked (charred).
The goal is to eat a maximum of three servings of red meat per week and even less processed meat. When you do eat red meat, choose leaner cuts and add in lots of plant foods for fiber.
How to cut down on sugary drinks for your anti-cancer diet
Sodas and energy drinks, as well as sugar added to other beverages such as tea and coffee, are examples of sugar-sweetened drinks. There is strong evidence that excessive consumption of sugary drinks contributes to the risk of cancer.
Fact: Coffee consumption may protect against cancers of the liver, endometrium, mouth, and throat. The consumption of tea (but not maté tea) has been linked to a lower risk of bladder cancer. Consider drinking them with less sugar.
Pro tip: Did you know that the majority of coffee shops will gladly make their signature drinks with half the sugar/syrup? Simply request that your drink be "half sweet," and see if they can accommodate your goal to better health.
Reduce your sugary drink consumption by drinking them less frequently and in smaller quantities. The science on the benefits of replacing sugar-sweetened drinks with low-calorie artificially sweetened drinks is unclear. That is why it is advised to consume water and unsweetened beverages.
Whole grains and fruit for an anti-cancer breakfast
Bottom line on enjoying your anti-cancer diet
Cancer is a serious health risk, and the empowering truth is that you do have some control over your health and future through nutrition. The foods (and beverages) you consume help you maintain a healthy lifestyle and lower your risk of cancer. The good news is that these strategies can reduce your risk of other chronic diseases as well.
You can improve your health by eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes and eating fewer fast foods, red and processed meats, and sugary drinks. You don't have to change everything right away because small, sustainable changes in your daily life can lead to greater wellness.
Need help choosing or implementing more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes into your diet? I’m here for you. As a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with people experiencing cancer, I’d love to help.
I offer clients support to plan, shop, and prepare more nutritious and healthy meals for yourself or your family. Here is my link to book a chat about making sure to meet your nutritional needs.
American Cancer Society. (2020, June 9). American Cancer Society guideline for diet and physical activity. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/acs-guidelines-nutrition-physical-activity-cancer-prevention/guidelines.html
Cleveland Clinic. (2022, October 19). Anti-cancer diet: These foods may reduce your risk for cancer. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/anti-cancer-diet/
Didinger, J. C. (2019). Diet and cancer prevention. Colorado State University. https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/diet-and-cancer-prevention-9-313/
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (n.d.). Preventing cancer. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/cancer/preventing-cancer/
Key, T., Bradbury, K., Perez-Cornago, A., Sinha, R., Tsilidis, K., & Tsugane, S. (2020). Diet, nutrition, and cancer risk: what do we know and what is the way forward? BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 368, m511. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m511 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7190379/ https://www.bmj.com/content/368/bmj.m511
National Cancer Institute. (2015, April 29). Cancer causes and prevention: Diet. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet
National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Aerodigestive tract. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/aerodigestive-tract
Stanford Medicine. (n.d.). Reducing your cancer risk through nutrition. https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-clinics/cancer-nutrition-services/reducing-cancer-risk.html
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Cancer prevention recommendations. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Eat wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and beans. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/eat-wholegrains-vegetables-fruit-and-beans/
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Interactive cancer risk matrix. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/interactive-cancer-risk-matrix/
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Limit ‘fast foods.’ https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/limit-fast-foods/
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Limit red and processed meat. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/limit-red-and-processed-meat/
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Limit sugar-sweetened drinks. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/limit-sugar-sweetened-drinks/