Improve Your Diet to Decrease Cancer Risk.

What we eat and drink affects our risk of developing cancer.



The Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) clinical trial of dietary modification in nearly 49,000 postmenopausal women with no previous history of breast cancer reported that women who followed a balanced diet that was low in fat and included daily servings of fruits, vegetables, and grains had a 21% lower risk of death from breast cancer than women in the control group who continued their normal diet, which was higher in fat overall. This is the first large, randomized clinical trial to show that diet can reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer. - Rowan Chlebowski, MD, PhD, FASCO


There is absolutely no doubt that eating a healthy, well-balanced diet in sensible portions helps provide the framework to optimal physical and mental health. A healthy diet can also directly affect your cancer risk.



However, there is a lot of controversy about what constitutes a cancer prevention diet. Between social media, self help gurus and Dr Google, it gets very confusing to figure out the right choices and recommendations based on real data and truly trustworthy advice. What is clear though is that no single food can protect you against cancer by itself; it’s a diet mostly of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and other plant foods that helps lower risk for many cancers. The quantity of what you eat also matters, so reasonable portions and avoiding snacking go a long way in improving your health.

Here are recommendations towards a better diet based on reliable epidemiological studies, scientific data and proven research.

Decrease or Avoid:


  1. Red meat. Especially processed red meat but also consistent, large amounts of non processed red meat which is high in saturated fat and cholesterol should be avoided. There is also strong evidence that eating a lot of red meat may increase the risk of colon and rectal cancer. It is also linked to increased risk of pancreatic and prostate cancer. Red meat contains a compound (myoglobin) that is processed into other compounds in the gut, which can damage the lining of the gut and this can result in an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

  2. Processed meats. Meats such as hot dogs and cold cuts that are cured, smoked or preserved in other ways also increase colon, rectal and stomach cancer risk. The chemicals that are linked to increased cancer risk are heme which is a pigment found mostly in red meat and nitrates and nitrites which are added to keep processed meat fresher longer. All of these chemicals can damage the cells in the colon and rectum. Cancer risk increases over time as damage accumulates from these chemicals.

  3. Charred or seared meat. Meat cooked like this especially over an open flame produces carcinogens (heterocyclic amines and polycyclic amines) which increases risk of gastric cancer.

  4. Alcohol. Its use (dose dependent) increases the risk for both pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer, and liver cancer.

  5. Added sugars. Whether in candies, desserts or sodas, added sugars including the hidden amounts in foods you use daily such as salad dressings, baked goods, crackers and granola bars have been positively linked to cancers such as breast and colon cancer. There is substantial evidence that these unhealthy foods increase not only cancer risk but also heart disease and obesity. Obesity itself is a proven risk factor for cancer.


Increase or Add:


  1. Vegetables. Especially raw vegetables or salads, such as leafy green vegetables and also a variety of cooked vegetables (examples include bell peppers, spinach, beans, radishes, peas, turnips, asparagus) that make up half your plate at every meal is a good proven way to decrease cancer risk.

  2. Foods high in dietary fiber. This includes unprocessed whole grains (such as buckwheat, rye, amaranth, quinoa, barley, millet) that should make up to a quarter of your plate. All whole grain kernels contain three parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran is the fiber rich outer layer that supplies B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, anti oxidants, and phytochemicals. The germ is the core of the seed where growth occurs; it is rich in healthy fats, vitamins, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. The endosperm is the interior layer that holds carbohydrates, protein, and small amounts of some B vitamins and minerals.

  3. Tomatoes. Cooked and canned tomatoes contain lycopene and are protective against prostate cancer.

  4. Citrus fruits. Improve your health and metabolic indices by having consistent daily servings of oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes.

  5. Cruciferous vegetables. Broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, bok choy and other greens are good fighters against cancer. The cancer-fighting properties are from compounds in these vegetables called glucosinolates. When eaten, glucosinolates break down to isothiocyanates and indoles, which are associated with decreased inflammation, lowering the risk of cancer.

  6. Healthier fats. Using extra virgin olive oil for cooking and for dressings, and small quantities of nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flax seeds are how you can include healthier fats in your meals. Eating plant based monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), particularly from olive oil, and also avocados, nut butters has been associated with lower cancer risk. Similarly, the replacement of animal MUFAs with plant MUFAs has been associated with decreased cancer mortality. Healthy fats give you energy, support cell function and help your body absorb nutrients from vegetables, fruits and other foods and fat enhances the taste of food, making a person feel more satisfied than eating fat-free foods. Unhealthy saturated fats such as those in red meat and dairy products like cheese, butter and ice cream as well as trans fats found in fried and fast foods and processed foods such as crackers, chips and cookies should be minimized as much as possible.

  7. Lean sources of protein. This includes poultry, fish and legumes that can make up to a quarter of your plate at some (not all) of your daily meals.


While it may be hard to make all these changes at once, there is no doubt that these changes are necessary for lowering your cancer risk and for other incredibly positive impacts on your long-term health. However, if you have digestive issues or other chronic health issues, you must talk to your health care team before you embark on dietary changes to make sure you are on the right path to good health and cancer risk reduction.

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Reason to Hope

There is new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital that indicates a Western-style diet that is rich in red and processed meat, sugar and refined grains/carbohydrates is tied to higher risk of colorectal cancer through the intestinal microbiota.  Gastroenterology, 2022;DOI:10.1053/j.gastro.2022.06.054