How to reduce your cancer risk through food

School Of Nutrition Posted Jun 30, 2014 Future Fit Training

Experts think that nearly one in ten UK cancer cases are caused by unhealthy diets.

How to reduce your cancer risk through food

Our diet influences our risk of many cancers, including cancers of the mouth, food pipe, stomach, bowel and breast.

Evidence suggests that you can reduce your cancer risk by eating a healthy, balanced diet which is high in fibre, fruits and vegetables and low in red and processed meat and salt. Here are four ways to help reduce cancer risk through food.

1. Eat more plant foods

A plant based diet is highly associated with a reduced overall cancer risk. Fruits and vegetables are a good source of many important nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and folate, and are excellent sources of fibre. Pulses or legumes also contain high amounts of fibre.

Additionally, plant foods are naturally less calorie dense for the most part, making it easier to maintain a healthy weight - another indicator for reduced cancer risk, particularly with breast and prostate cancers. 

You can try:

  • filling half your plate with veggies,
  • snacking on fruit throughout the day, and
  • having a legume (e.g. beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc.) based meal at least once or twice a week.

Eating fruit and vegetables with a wide variety of colours will help you get a broad range of vitamins and minerals.

Cruciferous vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower or cabbage, contain a chemical (glucosinolates) that has been shown to have anti-cancer properties, so make sure to include some of these on a regular basis.  

Allium vegetables, such as onions, leeks and garlic, have shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and they may also play an important role in the prevention of cancers. You could try adding garlic, shallots, onions and scallions to your sauces, salads, or blended in to salad dressings and dips. For an added boost, chopping or crushing your garlic before cooking releases certain chemicals (such as allixin) that may be useful compounds for cancer prevention.

2. Up your intake of fibre

Fibre-rich foods, such as fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, wholemeal bread, brown rice and pulses, help prevent constipation and can reduce the risk of bowel cancer by at least a quarter.

Boost the fibre in your diet by:

  • choosing wholegrain varieties of starchy foods, such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain cereals, brown rice and wholewheat pasta,
  • increasing your daily intake of fruits and vegetables, especially peas, spinach, apples, avocados, pears and berries. Other fruit and vegetables that contain moderate amounts of fibre include Brussels sprouts, green beans, broccoli, corn, carrots and oranges, and
  • increasing your weekly intake of pulses such as beans, chickpeas and lentils.

3. Reduce your intake of red meats and processed meats

Eating lots of red and processed meats can increase your risk of bowel cancer, and possibly stomach cancer. Red meat includes beef, pork and lamb. Processed meat includes ham, bacon, salami and sausages. On the other hand, white meat, such as chicken, is unlikely to increase your risk of cancer. 

Red meat tends to be high in saturated fats and there is evidence that eating too much saturated fat may increase your risk of breast cancer.

You can try:

  • eating smaller and fewer portions of red and processed meat,
  • choosing lean cuts of meat,
  • using low-temperature methods such as braising to cook your meat; cooking meat at high temperatures until it chars can produce cancer-causing chemicals (heterocyclic amines or HAA),
  • adding beans or pulses instead of meat in your recipes, and
  • eating more fish instead of red or processed meat.

4. Lower your salt intake

Foods that are high in salt or preserved using salt can increase your risk of cancers of the stomach and nasopharynx, the bit where the back of your nose meets your throat. Too much salt can also increase your blood pressure and your risk of heart disease and stroke.

There is often salt hidden where you wouldn't expect it so always check the salt content of processed foods and ready meals.


There are often stories in the media about specific foods that are meant to be particularly good for us. But you shouldn’t rely on so-called 'superfoods' to reduce the risk of cancer. Eating any one specific food is unlikely to have a major impact on preventing cancer, or any other diseases for that matter. But eating a generally healthy and balanced diet is a great way of helping to reduce your risk.

For more information on diet and cancer risk click here

Written by Victoria Trowse

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