Top 10 Foods to Reduce Cancer Risk (And What Foods To Avoid)

Top 10 Foods to Reduce Cancer Risk (And What Foods To Avoid)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately a third of deaths from cancer are related to lifestyle factors including smoking, alcohol, being overweight, low fruit and vegetable intake, and lack of physical activity (1).

In addition to avoiding smoking, over-consumption of alcohol, and a sedentary lifestyle, following a healthy diet is important for cancer prevention.

In the first instance, a healthy diet is important for maintaining a healthy weight. Being overweight increases the risk of 13 specific types of cancer and overall cancer risk (2,3).

Secondly, a healthy diet can provide some protection against cancer via the health-promoting effects of certain foods and nutrients. An unhealthy diet, on the other hand, contains elements that increase the chances of developing cancer.

When it comes to cancer prevention, there are no guarantees, but experts agree that the overall dietary pattern is fundamental and more important than individual foods. A healthy diet is one based predominantly on plant foods, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts, and seeds. Fish and moderate amounts of dairy products and poultry may also be included. Processed foods, processed meat in particular, red meat, added sugars, unhealthy fats (trans and saturated), and alcohol should be minimized (4).

Adequate fiber consumption, in particular, is associated with reduced cancer risk (5). As fiber comes from plants, a diet based principally on whole plant foods will naturally meet the requirements for fiber.

In addition, there are some specific foods and food groups that provide nutrients or plant substances, known as phytochemicals, that have been shown to have protective effects. It must be noted that these possible benefits are only present when these foods are included in the context of a healthy diet, as described. There are also certain foods linked with an increased risk of cancer, which should be avoided or minimized.

The following article summarises both beneficial and harmful foods and overall dietary and lifestyle advice for cancer prevention.

Disclaimer: None of the advice in this article is intended to be a substitute for medical treatment or advice. Nor can it cure, treat, or prevent cancer. Please always consult a Health Professional before making any changes to your diet, especially if you are undergoing treatment for cancer or any other medical condition.

List of Foods to Reduce Cancer Risk

1 Fruits and Vegetables
Blackberries
A diet high in fruits and vegetables is linked with a reduced risk of cancer and all-cause mortality (6). This is the reason that public health recommendations advise us to eat at least 5-7 servings of fruit and vegetables per day. To get the most benefits variety is key, both over the day and over the week. Each different colored fruit and vegetable provides different nutrients and phytochemicals (beneficial plant substances), hence the phrase "eat the rainbow". Fruits and vegetables have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in the body, which are both protective along with containing fiber, vitamins, minerals, and a cocktail of phytochemicals.
2 Whole Grains
Brown Rice
Whole grains such as brown rice, oats, and whole-wheat bread are linked with a reduced risk of total cancer and especially cancers of the digestive tract (including colon, colorectal, oesophageal, and pancreatic cancers) (7,8,9,10). These foods are high in fiber and many other potentially protective nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Regular consumption of refined grains on the other hand, such as white bread, white rice, and refined flour products increases cancer risk (7), so swapping these out of your diet for whole grains is doubly beneficial.
3 Cruciferous Vegetables (Broccoli)
Broccoli Stalk
Cruciferous vegetables, also known as brassica vegetables, include broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, collards, and cauliflower. They contain beneficial plant chemicals or phytonutrients called glucosinolates, which are believed to influence several processes involved in the development of cancer and ultimately reduce the overall risk of cancer (11,12,13). In particular, a substance called sulforaphane has been shown to have anti-cancer properties, protecting cells from DNA damage and inhibiting tumor growth (14,15,16).
4 Fermented Foods
Kimchi in a bowl
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and miso contain beneficial, live bacteria or probiotics to help keep the gut healthy. The microbiome (gut bacteria) is believed to be involved in the development and progression of cancer via interactions with the immune system (17,18,19). There are specific strains of bacteria with protective effects, such as inhibiting tumor growth or boosting the immune cells that defend against cancer. There is also evidence that probiotics can be supportive for cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, enhancing effectiveness and reducing side-effects (20,21).
5 Nuts
Nuts and Seeds in a Bowl
Nuts, especially Brazil nuts, are a source of the mineral selenium, which has been linked with reducing the risk of certain cancers. A component of selenium called selenomethionine is believed to switch on a gene called p53 that may help prevent tumors from developing (22). It should be noted however that selenium supplements have not shown benefits and may even be harmful in some cases, so it is always advisable to obtain selenium from a range of healthy food sources such as nuts, seeds, fish, mushrooms, and whole grains (23,24).
6 Onions
A whole onion
Onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, spring onions (scallions), and chives are collectively known as allium vegetables and may have potentially protective effects against stomach cancer. Research suggests that the more of these vegetables people eat, the lower their risk of stomach cancer might be (25,26,27,28). For example, one analysis of 21 studies found that for every 20g per day eaten, there was a 9% reduced risk (25). These effects are thought to be due to their high content of flavanols and organosulphur compounds, which have anti-cancer properties (28).
7 Turmeric
Slices of turmeric and turmeric powder
One of the key active ingredients in turmeric, called curcumin, has been shown to have possible anti-cancer properties. It is believed to work by targeting various cell signaling pathways involved in cancer development and progression (29). Curcumin also has well-known anti-inflammatory properties (30), which may help reduce tumor growth as well as support the effectiveness of cancer treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy and minimizing their side effects (31).
8 Beans and Lentils
Kidney Beans
Pulses such as beans and lentils are another top source of dietary fiber and also provide folate or vitamin B9. Folate is needed in the body for normal, healthy cell replication and growth. Low folate status is associated with an increased risk of cancer in some research (32). However, folate supplements may actually increase prostate cancer risk slightly, so folate should always be obtained from food sources. Other healthy sources of folate include spinach, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, oranges, mango, and whole wheat bread.
9 Soy
A block of tofu
Consumption of soy foods in traditional Asian diets has been linked with a decreased risk of overall cancer and in particular, hormone-dependent cancers such as breast and prostate cancers (32,33,34,35,36,37,38). The evidence has been mixed and confusing about soya and cancer, but in 2022 a review of 81 studies found that each 25g eaten per day, could reduce cancer risk by 4%. The protective effects are believed to be due to natural substances found in soybeans called isoflavones (32). Traditional soy foods such as edamame, tofu, tempeh, and miso should be chosen over processed soy foods.
10 Tomatoes
Tomatoes
Tomatoes contain a substance called lycopene which has been shown to inhibit tumor growth in test tubes (39). Higher intakes of tomatoes and higher blood levels of lycopene have also been linked with a lower risk of various cancers in some but not all studies (40). In the positive studies, evidence of a benefit was strongest for cancers of the prostate, lungs, and stomach. One clinical trial gave men with high-grade prostate intraepithelial neoplasia (HGPIN) (a precursor to prostate cancer), 4mg lycopene twice a day for a year and found it reduced the chances of prostate cancer developing (41).

Foods to Avoid to Help Prevent Cancer

  • Processed and red meats increase the risk of developing bowel cancer and possibly stomach and pancreatic cancers (42,43). The risk is especially high for processed meats which should be avoided or eaten only very occasionally (salami, ham, bacon, sausages, chicken nuggets, luncheon meats etc.). Red meat includes lamb, mutton, beef, and pork and should be eaten no more than 1-2 times per week, but can also be limited further or avoided.
  • Alcohol is related to 7 different types of cancer including cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, liver, colon, and breast. It is estimated that 4% of total worldwide cancer cases are caused by alcohol (44,45). Abstinence or very moderate drinking is advisable, especially for people with a family history of any of the above cancers.
  • Ultra-Processed Foods (UPF) lead to a 10% increase in the proportion of UPF eaten in the diet is linked with a 10% increased risk of cancer (46). These foods are also linked with obesity and most other major health issues, so should be kept to a minimum or avoided.
  • High sugar and fat foods promote inflammation in the body, which is involved in cancer development and progression.

Tips to Reduce Cancer Risk

  • Maintain a healthy weight - being overweight is the second highest cause of cancer in the UK. Maintaining a healthy weight reduces the risk of 13 different types of cancer (47).
  • Vegetarian and vegan diets are protective against cancer. Being vegetarian reduces risk by approximately 8% and being vegan by 15% according to one study (48,49,50). This is especially true if processed foods are avoided.
  • Physical activity protects against cancers of the colon, breast, and endometrium and helps prevent weight gain (51,52).
  • Dairy Products - there is evidence that regular consumption of dairy can reduce the risk of bowel cancer (53,54). Fermented dairy has been associated with a reduced risk of cancer (55). Yogurt consumption is linked with a reduced risk of bladder and colorectal cancers (55). There is also however some evidence that consumption of dairy and a high-calcium diet is linked with an increased risk of prostate cancer (56). As the evidence is inconclusive, it is advisable (for non-vegans) to consume high-quality dairy, in small to moderate quantities with a focus on organic, grass-fed fermented dairy, such as yogurt, kefir, and artisan cheeses.

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Data Sources and References

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