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This month’s article covers four key nutrition strategies that can reduce your risk of getting cancer. The foods (and drinks) you consume can play a big role and I want to share some of the research with you.
While there is no single food or habit that will surely cause cancer, there is also no single food or habit that will surely prevent it. To reduce your risk of being diagnosed with cancer (or a recurrence) you can influence any number of your day-to-day lifestyle practices, including nutrition. There are several choices you can make to exert a big difference to your cancer risk. This article will share what the science currently tells us regarding nutrition and cancer prevention.
According to the World Cancer Research Fund International, these are the top cancer prevention recommendations related to diet, nutrition, and physical activity:
- Be a healthy weight
- 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 (e.g. focus on nutrient-dense foods!)
- Breastfeed your baby if you can
- Avoid smoking and other exposure to tobacco
- Don’t get excess sun exposure
In this article, you’re going to learn more about some of these diet and nutrition-related recommendations. You’ll also get some goals, tips, and strategies to make them work for you.
Fun fact: The healthy nutrition strategies in this article will not only reduce your risk of cancer, but they can also reduce your risk for developing heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and excess weight gain.
Note that when you hear phrases like “limit” and “cut down” they don’t necessarily suggest that you completely remove all traces of these foods from your diet. It simply prompts you to consider enjoying them less often and in smaller portions as part of an overall nutritious and well-balanced diet.
What is cancer and how can nutrition reduce your risk of getting it?
Behind heart disease (which is number one), cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States. Cancer happens when cells—from anywhere in the body—become abnormal and multiply uncontrollably. These cancer cells can cause damage by eventually growing into tumors or otherwise spreading throughout the body.
There are many different types of cancer, and many different things can increase and decrease your risk of cancer, depending on the type. Cancer starts when there is an interaction between cells, the genetics inherited from parents, exposures to different compounds and viruses, and any number of other factors.
The good news is that many cancers are highly preventable with a healthy lifestyle that includes an abundance of nutritious foods. In fact, according to Harvard Health, a healthy dietary pattern can reduce your cancer risk by 10-20 percent.
One of the main nutrition-related factors that can increase risk of cancer is excess weight. Studies show that excess weight can increase risks for cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx, larynx, esophagus), stomach, pancreas, gall bladder, liver, colorectum, breast (post-menopausal), ovary, endometrium, prostate, and kidney.
Enjoy a healthy diet to reduce your cancer risk
What exactly is a “healthy,” cancer-risk-reducing diet? It’s choosing more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes like beans and lentils. These foods help reduce cancer risk in many ways. For example, they are full of essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes also contain other health-promoting compounds like antioxidants. Plus, these foods can help protect against excess weight because they can help you feel fuller longer due to their fiber and water content.
Fun fact: Fiber is a health-promoting carbohydrate found in plant foods. It’s a unique type of carbohydrate because it’s one that our gut can’t break it down to digest. This has many health benefits for your digestive system. For one thing, fiber can help you feel fuller and help your digestive system keep things moving and promote regularity. Fiber also supports a healthy gut microbiome by feeding your friendly gut bacteria. Getting your fiber from foods is recommended over fiber supplements whenever possible.
Fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes also contain antioxidants and protein. These foods are known to help protect against many cancers, including colorectal cancer. Fruits and vegetables also protect against several cancers, including cancers located in the mouth and throat.
A recommended goal is to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables and at least 30 grams of fiber each day. You can do this by including them along with whole grains, and legumes in every meal and enjoying them as snacks.
Examples of these foods are:
- a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables like dark greens, tomatoes, carrots, pineapple, broccoli, bell peppers, leafy greens, zucchini, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, sweet potatoes, and blueberries
- whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat, and oats
- legumes include black beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), white beans, pinto beans, and lentils
We know it can be challenging to eat more fruits and vegetables, but the commitment and effort is worth it for your health. You can find inspiration and several flavorful plant-centered, fiber-rich recipes on our website.
Limit “fast foods” to reduce your cancer risk:
“Fast foods” are convenient foods that are often ultra processed. “Ultra processed” means they’re heavily manufactured and don’t resemble their natural or original state. (Think of corn and the process it would take to turn it into high fructose corn syrup). Examples of fast foods include sugar-sweetened beverages, burgers, fried chicken, potato chips, fries, cakes, pastries, candies, and candy bars.
Many fast foods are engineered to be very tasty (“highly palatable”) and are prone to be enjoyed often and in large quantities. Fast foods are almost always high in fat, salt, and starches or sugars. They also usually have a long shelf-life so they can be stored for a long time (e.g., they’re not “fresh” foods that can wilt or go bad quickly). Eating too many fast and ultra processed foods is linked to increased weight, insulin, blood sugar, and blood pressure.
The goal to reduce your cancer risk—and improving your overall health—is to limit how often and how much fast food is eaten.
Limit red and processed meat to reduce your cancer risk:
Meat can be a good source of protein, iron, zinc, and Vitamin B12. However, eating too much red and processed meat is linked to many cancers, with the strongest link being to colorectal cancer.
Red meat includes beef, pork, veal, lamb, and goat. Processed meat is meat that has been salted, smoked, cured, or fermented. These processes are done to enhance the flavor of the meat and to preserve it to increase its shelf life. Examples of processed meats are hot dogs, bacon, salami, sausages, and deli meats like ham.
Red and processed meats can contribute to cancer risk because they may contain or create cancer-causing substances when they’re processed and cooked (charred). Higher fat meats can also contribute to excess weight, which is a risk factor for many cancers.
The goal is to enjoy red meat up to three portions per week and have even less processed meat. When you do eat red meat, you can choose leaner cuts of it, or even substitute it from time to time with other higher-protein foods like poultry, fish, legumes, eggs, nuts, or dairy. Research shows that it’s also highly beneficial to marinate meat or enjoy it with cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc. to counteract some of the cancer-causing substances that are formed when grilling.
You can also stretch the meat you eat by incorporating veggies, mushrooms, and beans into your meat-based dishes for volume, color, and flavor. Here are some great recipe ideas:
- White Bean Chicken Chili
- Oven Baked Italian Turkey Zucchini Meatballs
- Easy Weeknight Sheet-Pan Chicken Fajitas
- Blended Burger Sliders
- Quick and Easy Turkey Bolognese
Cut down on sugary drinks to reduce your cancer risk:
Sugar-sweetened drinks include sodas and energy drinks, as well as sugar added to other beverages like tea and coffee. There is strong evidence that a high intake of sugary drinks contributes to excess weight and increases risk of cancer.
Try to reduce your intake of sugary drinks by having them less often and in smaller amounts. When it comes to benefits of substituting sugar-sweetened drinks with low-calorie artificially sweetened drinks, the science is not clear. That’s why the recommendation is to mainly enjoy water and unsweetened drinks.
Fun fact: Drinking coffee may protect against liver, endometrial, mouth, and throat cancers. Drinking tea (but not maté tea) is linked to a reduced risk of bladder cancer. (Consider enjoying them with a bit less sugar.)
Pro tip: Did you know most coffee shops will happily make their signature drinks with half of the sugar/syrup? Simply ask for your drink to be “half sweet” and see if they can accommodate your goal of reducing added sugars.
You might like to try one of our tea or smoothie recipes as a lower sugar, antioxidant-rich way to stay hydrated:
Cancer is no small health challenge, and the empowering truth is that you can influence your health and future with nutrition. The foods (and drinks) you consume contribute to your healthy lifestyle to reduce your risk of cancer. And the great news is that these strategies can also reduce your risk of other chronic diseases at the same time, making it a win-win all-around.
By choosing more fruits, vegetable, whole grains, and legumes, and choosing fewer fast foods, red and processed meats, and sugary drinks, you can exert a big impact on your health. You don’t need to overhaul everything right away because small, sustainable changes to your day-to-day life can lead the way to improved wellness.
Need help implementing more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes into your diet without compromising on flavor? Check out our upcoming Fall Flavors cooking class on Thursday, October 19th.
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
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/
About the Author
Lisa Markley, MS, RDN, LD
Lisa Markley, MS, RDN, LD, is an integrative dietitian culinary nutrition expert with nearly two decades of experience working towards improving the health of others. She is passionate about educating others how to harness the healing power of food and healthful lifestyle changes.