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Nutrition to Reduce Cancer Risk

Research shows that a healthy diet may help lower your risk of getting certain cancers. In this sheet you can learn more about nutrition and its role in preventing cancer. You may need a different diet if you have cancer or are getting cancer treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider or a dietitian to find out what's best for you.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends eating a diet high in foods such as:

  • Vegetables and fruits. These foods contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients that may reduce your cancer risk. They are also lower in calories. This can help you stay at a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk for cancer. Try adding dark green, red, and orange produce to your diet. Examples are kale, strawberries, and peppers. Also try cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. Legumes are high in protein, fiber, iron, zinc, potassium, and folate. Try adding legumes to your diet. Examples are soy, lentils, and beans.

  • Whole grains. Whole grains contain the whole grain kernel. Foods made with whole grains are higher in fiber and nutrients than foods made with processed grains. They may help lower your risk for colorectal cancer. Foods high in fiber are also linked to a lower risk of being overweight or obese. Try adding brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and whole-wheat flour to your diet.

The ACS says some foods and drinks should be limited or not eaten. These include:

  • Alcohol. It's best not to drink alcohol. Alcohol use is linked to mouth, throat, esophageal, liver, colon, rectal, and breast cancer. People who drink should limit their alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of hard liquor.

  • Red and processed meats. Red meat includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat meat. Processed meat includes bacon, sausage, ham, deli meat, and hot dogs. The ACS recommends eating fish, poultry, and beans more often than red meat. Don't have processed meat. Or limit how much of that you have. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists processed meat as cancer-causing (carcinogenic). It lists red meat as probably cancer-causing because of its link to colorectal cancer risk. There may also be a link between these meats and the risk for breast cancer and certain types of prostate cancer.

  • Sugar-sweetened drinks. These add extra calories to your diet without adding many nutrients. They are linked with being overweight or obese. This can increase your risk for cancer. Focus on drinking water. Try flavoring it with lemon.

  • Highly processed foods and refined grain products. Ready-to-eat meals, snack foods, and candy are examples of these foods. They don't look like their original plant or animal sources. Try to eat fresh, unprocessed foods as much as possible.

Body weight and cancer risk

Being overweight or obese is linked to increased risk for many types of cancer. These include colorectal, endometrial, kidney, liver, ovarian, pancreatic, and thyroid cancer. Focus on the nutrition advice given here and be physically active. Ask your healthcare team what a healthy weight is for you. They can support you. They can offer resources if you are trying to lose weight. Even losing a small amount of weight has health benefits.

Dietary supplements

These contain things like vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, and other kinds of ingredients. Some people need vitamins or mineral supplements because of certain health conditions. But these things may not lower your risk for cancer. In fact, some high-dose supplements with beta-carotene or vitamins A and E can increase the risk for certain cancers. Supplements are not always well-regulated.

Focus on eating a variety of foods that are high in nutrients, as discussed above. Ask your healthcare team about supplements.

Getting help

Nutrition information can seem complex and overwhelming. If you have questions about your diet, ask your healthcare provider for a referral to a registered dietitian. A dietitian can go over your nutrition needs. They can give you up-to-date information. The dietitian can also help you decide what type of diet is best for you.

Food can be expensive. Talk to your healthcare team about local resources that can help you with food costs. Food aid programs are also available at the USDA website.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Sabrina Felson MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2022
© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.