Can Food Help Prevent Cancer?

Reviewed by Kumar Shital, DO on November 20, 2020

Experts say eating healthy is an important way to protect yourself from cancer. When you put the right kinds of foods -- and the right portions -- into your body, you fuel your cells with the nutrients they need to stay healthy. You’ll also avoid unhealthy ingredients that could make you sick.

How Do Foods Fight Cancer?

People who eat more fruits and veggies tend to get less cancer. That may be because those foods are high in antioxidants -- chemicals that fight the cell damage that leads to cancer. 

You can find antioxidants in fruits, vegetables, tea, coffee, and other plant-based foods, as well as in supplements. But research suggests that getting antioxidants from food works better than getting them from pills. Some supplements may raise your risk of getting cancer.

Aim for at least 2 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables every day, and try to eat a variety of types and colors.

Your produce doesn’t have to all come straight from the farmers market, either. Canned or frozen fruits and veggies have many of the same nutrients as fresh ones. You can also add garlic to your shopping list. This flavorful ingredient may protect against several types of cancer.

Basic Health Rules Apply

If you eat a lot of fat, sugar, and refined carbs (like white bread), you’re more likely to gain weight and become obese. It's even more likely if you don’t do enough to burn off the extra calories.

Obesity is linked to several types of cancer, so it’s smart to follow an eating plan that helps you keep your weight as low as you can without being underweight. Cancer experts say it’s key to avoid high-calorie processed foods and sugary beverages like soda, sweet tea, and juice-flavored drinks. They have lots of calories but won’t help you feel full.

Alcohol is also tied to several types of cancer. All types -- beer, wine, and spirits -- seem to raise your chances. Drink in moderate amounts. That means no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two for men.

Eat This, Not That

Experts have figured out what foods are best to eat -- or skip -- for specific types of cancer. Here’s the list: 

Breast cancer: People who eat lots of veggies, fruit, poultry, fish, and low-fat dairy products have lower rates of this type of cancer.

There’s strong evidence that alcohol boosts your chances of getting it. Even a few drinks a week can make it more likely. If you’re worried, just say no. 

Colorectal cancer: If you have a spare tire, you’re more likely to get this cancer. Do you eat lots of red or processed meat? That can also play a role. So can chemicals called nitrates, which are often added to lunch meat, ham, hot dogs, and bacon.

You should also cut back on meats that are fried, broiled, or grilled over an open flame. When animal products cook at high temperatures, they form chemicals that cause cancer. Make sure any meat you eat isn't burnt, and skip the blackened or charred parts.

To lower your risk, eat foods with fiber, especially whole grains. Calcium and vitamin D may also protect you. But be careful: Too much could raise your odds for getting other types of cancer. Stick to the recommended levels.

Uterine cancer: Extra belly fat can make you more likely to get this type. It could be that overweight women make more estrogen, which can fuel cancer growth. Stick to a diet and exercise plan that helps you lose extra belly fat and keep it away.

Lung cancer: Smoking is the biggest risk factor here. But many studies show that people who eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day are less likely to get it than those who don’t.

Digestive cancers: Obesity often brings on acid reflux, which can increase your chances of cancer in the esophagus and stomach. A healthy weight can keep your risk low.

Avoid beverages and foods that are hot enough to burn you. They can damage cells in your mouth, throat, and esophagus and may raise your chances of getting one of these cancers.

Salty food has been linked to higher odds of stomach cancer. Processed meat could also make it more likely.

Ovarian cancer: Soybeans or foods made with soy (like tofu) could lower your odds of getting ovarian cancer. Tea, especially green tea, may also keep it at bay. But not all research supports these findings. The jury is still out on how much they help. 

Pancreatic cancer: Belly fat is linked to a higher risk of this type, especially for women. A diet high in red and processed meat could also play a role. Limit these foods, and slim down if you’re overweight.

Prostate cancer: If you’re a man, chowing down on tomatoes, soy, beans, and other legumes could lower your prostate cancer risk. Add cruciferous veggies -- broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage -- to the mix, too.

Several studies have linked high levels of calcium, or large amounts of dairy foods, to higher odds of prostate cancer. Don’t take calcium unless your doctor recommends it.

Show Sources


American Cancer Society: “Common questions about diet and cancer,” “Diet and activity factors that affect risks for certain cancers,” “Food additives, safety, and organic foods.”

National Cancer Institute: “Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk,” “Garlic and Cancer Prevention,” “Recommendations for Cancer Prevention.”

American Institute for Cancer Research: “Recommendations for Cancer Prevention.”

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: “Researchers Unveil Six Dietary Guidelines for Cancer Prevention.”

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