Foods to Reduce Cancer Risk   

Foods to Reduce Cancer Risk

Overhead view of a large group of healthy foods like blueberries, broccoli, whole grains and nuts.

June 12, 2023

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Roshani Patel, M.D.
David C. Leopold, M.D.
Kaitlin McKenzie, RDN

Would you eat differently if you knew that certain foods can affect your cancer risk? Being mindful of what you include in your diet may help you stay healthier.

Certain foods have been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers. Other foods have been found to increase the risk of certain cancers.

Your eating habits may influence your risk of developing these types of cancer:

  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Oral (mouth) cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Liver cancer

Additionally, consuming more than 4oz per day of alcohol may increase the risk of these cancers:

  • Oral (mouth) cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Larynx (voice box) cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

There’s no guarantee that changing what you eat will prevent cancer. But making better food choices may lower your overall cancer risk. 

“Certain foods can help reduce inflammation in the body, which can reduce the risk of cancer,” Roshani Patel, M.D., medical director for breast surgery at Jersey Shore University Medical Center says. “You might decide to eat some of those foods more often, for your health.” 

Foods That May Reduce Cancer Risk

There’s no official cancer-fighting diet, but try eating more plant-based foods. They’re rich in phytonutrients – natural compounds in plant-based foods that fight cancer.

Phytonutrients include antioxidants like carotenoids or flavonoids. Many plant-based foods are also high in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

“Antioxidants protect you from free radicals, substances that are linked to cancer and other illnesses,” Dr. Patel says. “They help to prevent damage to your cells, keeping you healthier.”

Some plant-based foods help fight cancer by helping you maintain a healthy weight. Several types of cancer are linked to weight gain and being overweight.

Try adding foods like these to your diet:

  • Fruits and vegetables. Choose in-season produce with bold, varied colors. Red, green, yellow, orange and purple options contain a mix of cancer-fighting nutrients.
  • Mushrooms. “Mushrooms have many components that have been shown to help fight cancer,” says David Leopold, M.D., network medical director for Hackensack Meridian Integrative Health & Medicine. “Mushrooms should always be consumed only when cooked and the best way to use them as a cancer preventative strategy is to eat a wide variety of mushrooms.”
  • Whole grains. Fiber-rich grains help you feel full, helping you maintain a healthy weight. 
  • Nuts and seeds. They’re small but powerful, packed with fiber, phytonutrients and healthy fats. Don’t eat too many nuts and seeds; they’re high in calories.
  • Beans. Chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans and other options are high in fiber and phytonutrients. They’ll reduce your colorectal cancer risk, plus other cancers linked with being overweight.
  • Soy products. Some people enjoy this plant-based protein source as a meat alternative. It contains every essential amino acid found in meat – unusual for plant-based foods.
  • Green tea. Choose this antioxidant-rich beverage over soda or other sugary alternatives. Green tea is rich in polyphenols, plant-based substances that fight cancer.
  • Coffee. “That would simply be black coffee. Coffee has been shown to have multiple chemicals that are inhibitory to the development of cancer,” adds Dr. Leopold. “Coffee often gets undeserved a bad rap, and green tea can get most of the ‘spotlight,’ but there’s actually a tremendous body of evidence that shows that coffee helps prevent multiple health conditions, cancer being one of them.”

Lean protein and low-fat dairy can be part of a cancer-fighting diet. Opt for seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids and probiotic-rich yogurt.

Foods That May Increase Cancer Risk

To help reduce your cancer risk, limit or remove these items from your diet:

  • Grilled, charred foods. Barbecuing or pan-frying food until it’s charred causes chemical reactions linked to cancer. Baking, grilling or sautéing at lower temperatures shouldn’t create these cancerous compounds.
  • Red meat and processed meats. Limit your intake of beef, lamb, bacon and sausages, including hot dogs. Consuming high levels of these meats increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Soda, energy drinks and sweetened coffee drinks. Swapping sugary beverages for water may help you lose weight and decrease cancer risk. 
  • Fast food. Drive-through food is high in fat and calories, low in fiber and phytonutrients. Choose home-cooked food over these convenience meals to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Alcohol. Limiting yourself to one drink daily (4oz) (two drinks for men) may reduce cancer risk. Shunning alcohol altogether may lower your risk of certain cancers even more. 

“To eat healthier in the long run, make small changes to your diet,” says Kaitlin McKenzie, registered dietitian. “Start eating one new food, and limit or reduce the less healthy options, for a gradual transition. For example, cutting back from four slices of bacon to two, or down from four hot dogs to one, is still a win.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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