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Help reduce your cancer risk through diet

Fitness and nutrition · Nov 1, 2020

Despite the hype surrounding certain superfoods and supplements, there is no one food that will prevent the development of cancer. But there are dietary steps we can take to 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. These same principles can be customized to guide eating while actively battling a cancer diagnosis — with the help of experienced medical professionals.

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 choice1.

  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 meats2. 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 (compounds that protect cells from free radicals, which are harmful substances produced naturally through food breakdown as well as environmental pollution).

  3. Eat to maintain a healthy weight for your body: Being overweight or obese is linked to 13 types of cancer3.

  4. Focus on fibre: Fibre reduces the risk of colorectal cancer and other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease4. It also helps with weight management by helping to promote fullness.

  5. Focus on food first: While some foods are known to reduce cancer risk, research shows we benefit from the unique nutrient profile of each ingredient we eat. But we don’t eat nutrients – we eat food! Therefore, it’s important to focus on food first rather than high doses of individual nutrients through supplements5.

Known cancer-promoting 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 are associated with increased alcohol consumption6.

Red meat: Consuming too much beef, pork, goat and/or lamb can increase risk of developing colorectal cancer7. 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 cancers7.

Added sugar, salt and fat: Too much salt may increase risk of developing stomach cancer8, while, excess sugar and fat may indirectly increase cancer risk by contributing excess calories associated with weight gain.

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.

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

2 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

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

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

5 Rogel Cancer Center. 2009. “Most Wanted Supplements.”

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

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

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

Authored by:
Leigh Renwick
Clinical dietician, TELUS Health Care Centres