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Man and woman in kitchen preparing a healthy meal of salad and vegetables.
Man and woman in kitchen preparing a healthy meal of salad and vegetables.

5 ways to help reduce your cancer risk through diet

Personal health · Aug 16, 2022

There are several foods that may help reduce your risk of cancer, as well as others that are associated with a higher risk. Despite the hype surrounding certain superfoods and supplements, there is no one food that will prevent the development of cancer. But there are steps we can take when it comes to our eating habits that may help reduce our overall risk of developing the disease.

While certain factors such as genetics are beyond our influence, developing healthy eating and lifestyle habits can help diminish our cancer risks. With the help of experienced medical professionals, the same principles can be customized to guide eating while actively battling a cancer diagnosis.

5 dietary tips to help reduce cancer risk

1. Focus on meal balance

Load up on produce, choose lean proteins, opt for whole grains and make water your drink of choice.1

Lean proteins include skinless poultry, meat with little to no added sodium and fresh or frozen fish that hasn’t been breaded, battered or deep fried.2 If you are looking for meat alternatives, beans, chickpeas and lentils are all healthy sources of protein.3

When it comes to whole grains, there are several options that you may wish to add to your meals.4 Some examples include: 

  • Quinoa

  • Whole grain pasta

  • Whole grain bread

  • Whole oats or oatmeal

  • Whole grain brown or wild rice

It’s important to note that some sources of grain can include a considerable amount of sodium, sugar or saturated fats. Bakery products, sugary breakfast cereals and pre-packaged frozen pasta dishes fall into this category. Check the nutrition labels to select options that have less sodium, saturated fat and sugar.

2. Eat more plants

Plant-focused diets help reduce the probability of developing cancer, as they are often higher in fibre, vitamins and minerals, while being low in red and processed meats.5 Plant-based foods such as veggies, fruits, whole grains and beans contain phytochemicals that have the potential to boost immunity, reduce inflammation, prevent DNA damage, slow tumour growth, regulate hormones and act as antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that protect cells from free radicals, which are harmful substances produced naturally through food breakdown as well as environmental pollution.

Some plant-based choices include: 

There are many options when it comes to plant-based eating. Sign up for our plant-based eating program to get nutritious meal ideas delivered straight to your inbox.

3. Eat to maintain a healthy weight for your body

Being overweight or obese is linked to 13 types of cancer.6 Maintaining a healthy body weight may help you reduce your risk. What constitutes a healthy body weight is different for everyone.7 Two ways that may help you get a sense of whether you have a healthy body weight include:

  • Body mass index (BMI)

  • Waist circumference 

Body mass index takes into account your height and weight to estimate your body fat. It can be a useful tool for understanding weight, but it has some limitations. It’s meant to be an estimate only, and may not reflect changes to body fat and muscle mass that happen as you age. 

Waist circumference refers to the measurement of your waist above the hip bone when standing. A higher waist circumference may indicate excess abdominal fat. Risks for health problems such as cancer may be greater if waist circumference is more than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women.

If you have questions about healthy body weight, a doctor may be able to help.

4. Focus on fibre

Fibre reduces the risk of colorectal cancer and other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.8 It also helps with weight management by helping to promote fullness.

Fibre can be found in many foods,9 including:

According to Health Canada, women should be consuming 25 grams of fibre per day and men should be consuming 38 grams.13 Most Canadians are only getting about half of the recommended daily intake of fibre. When choosing foods at the grocery store, refer to the list of ingredients and look for foods with whole grain at the beginning of the list. 

5. Cut back on foods that increase cancer risk

In addition to understanding what foods can help reduce the risk of cancer, it’s also important to be aware of what foods to avoid. 

Limit your intake of the following substances, which have been shown to increase risk of developing cancer:

  • Alcohol: Several cancers such as colon, liver, esophageal, mouth and certain types of breast cancer are associated with increased alcohol consumption.14

  • Red meat: Consuming too much beef, pork, goat and/or lamb can increase risk of developing colorectal cancer.15 Be sure to limit red meat intake to no more than three servings per week (18 ounces total).

  • Processed meats: Processed meats, such as bacon, salami and cured fish, are those that have been altered by smoking, curing or salting and/or have added chemical preservatives. These meat products are also linked to colorectal cancers.16

  • Added sugar, salt and fat: Too much salt may increase risk of developing stomach cancer, while excess sugar and fat may indirectly increase cancer risk by contributing excess calories associated with weight gain.17

The takeaway

What we eat – or don’t eat – can influence our risk for developing cancer. Paying attention to what we eat as well as other modifiable factors, such as physical activity, smoking status, alcohol intake and UV exposure, allows us to take some control over both our cancer risks and general well-being.

Our nutrition team specializes in disease prevention through diet. Contact us to talk about a personalized plan for you.

If you’re looking to get a deeper understanding of your overall health, a Preventive Health Assessment may be valuable. Through diagnostic testing, laboratory screening and a full physical assessment, you will have 1:1 time with a team of medical professionals to learn about any potential risk factors for chronic illnesses such as cancer.

Fill out a short contact form to get started today.


References

1 American Cancer Society. 2020. “Diet and Physical Activity: What’s the Cancer Connection?”

2, 3 Health Canada / Gouvernement du Canada. (2022, May 3). Eat Protein Foods. Canada Food Guide. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/healthy-eating-recommendations/make-it-a-habit-to-eat-vegetables-fruit-whole-grains-and-protein-foods/eat-protein-foods/#section-2

4 Health Canada / Gouvernement du Canada. (2022, May 3). Eat Whole Grain Foods. Canada Food Guide. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/healthy-eating-recommendations/make-it-a-habit-to-eat-vegetables-fruit-whole-grains-and-protein-foods/eat-whole-grain-foods/#section-2

5 Lanou AJ, Svenson B. Reduced cancer risk in vegetarians: an analysis of recent reports. Cancer Manag Res. 2010;3:1-8. Published 2010 Dec 20. doi:10.2147/CMR.S6910

6 National Cancer Institute. “Obesity and Cancer.” Accessed 2021.

7 Lee, S. (n.d.). Reduce your risk of cancer with a healthy body weight. Canadian Cancer Society. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/reduce-your-risk/have-a-healthy-body-weight/reduce-your-risk-of-cancer-with-a-healthy-body-weight

8 Reynolds, A. Et al. 2019. “Carbohydrate quality and human health: a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses.” The Lancet.

9, 12, 13 Health Canada / Gouvernement du Canada. (2019, January 22). Fibre. Canada.ca. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/nutrients/fibre.html

10, 11 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2021, January 5). How much fiber is found in common foods? Mayo Clinic. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/high-fiber-foods/art-20050948

14 Canadian Cancer Society. “Some sobering facts about alcohol and cancer risk.” Cancer.ca. Accessed in 2021.

15, 16 Aykan NF. Red Meat and Colorectal Cancer. Oncol Rev. 2015;9(1):288. Published 2015 Dec 28. doi:10.4081/oncol.2015.288

17 Canadian Cancer Society. “Too much salt may increase your risk of which type of cancer?” Accessed 2021.

Authored by:
Leigh Renwick
Registered Dietitian, TELUS Health Care Centres