Healthy Eating Tips That May Help Lower Your Cancer Risk

Skip the red meat and sugary cereal, plus other tips to help fend off cancer.

a young Black woman eats a healthy breakfast of fruit

Updated on April 29, 2022.

Are there cancer-causing foods hiding in your diet? From artificial colors to added sugars to excess fat, the average American eating style may be riddled with ingredients that can hurt health and increase the odds of developing cancer.

But with a little research and a few adjustments, it’s possible to avoid food mistakes that could harm your health. Here are simple, research-backed eating habits to incorporate into your routine that may help lower your cancer risk.

Skip sugary breakfast cereals

Choose whole grains like unprocessed oatmeal or bran for breakfast, instead of sugary cereal. A 2018 study published in BMJ that looked at the eating habits of more than 100,000 French adults for eight years found that ultra-processed foods led to a 10 percent increased risk in breast cancer and cancer overall.

Sugary cereal contains refined sugars, which carry excess calories and cause a quick spike in blood sugar, followed by a blood sugar crash that may cause a surge in your appetite. Those extra calories can contribute to obesity. 

A 2020 study published in PLOS Medicine looked at changes in the BMIs of 110,000 French adults who frequently ate ultra-processed foods between 2009 and 2019. Researchers found increased weight gain and a greater risk of becoming obese among the participants. That’s a problem because obesity is a well-known risk factor for 13 different types of cancer.

Regularly eating fiber-rich grains, on the other hand, may help reduce your risk for certain cancers. Think oatmeal or omelets made with quinoa, but of which have healthy amounts of fiber. 

A 2019 study published in Food Science & Nutrition looking at whole grains versus refined grains found that eating whole-grain foods lowered the risk of developing gastric cancer. Refined grains, meanwhile—like white bread and cereal—increased the risk of gastric (stomach) cancer. Other research has shown that eating healthy amounts of fiber is also linked to a decreased risk of colorectal and breast cancer.

Ditch the processed meat

Regularly eating three to four slices of bacon may raise your colorectal cancer risk by 19 percent. A 2020 study published in International Journal of Epidemiology looked at people’s diets and the amount of red and processed meat they consumed per day. Along with bacon, the research also demonstrated a 20 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer when eating 76 grams of processed meat—equivalent to roughly four breakfast sausages. 7 After reviewing a number of studies, the World Health Organization in 2015 classified red meat as possibly cancer-causing and processed meat like bacon as cancer-causing.

Ditch the breakfast meats and pair your eggs with savory salsa or fresh tomato slices. Tomatoes get their red color from a chemical called lycopene. Lycopene has been associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer, according to some research. An April 2017 review published in Prostate Cancer and Prostatic Diseases looked at all studies done on lycopene and prostate cancer before 2016 and suggested that eating high amounts of lycopene is associated with a lower risk of developing prostate cancer. In fact, a 2014 study published in Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Biomarkers found that men who ate over 10 servings of lycopene-rich foods per week lowered their prostate cancer risk by 18 percent.

Lycopene’s anti-cancer effects may come from its ability to stop cancer from spreading in the body. A 2020 review on the molecular structure of lycopene suggests that it prevents cancer cells from dividing and multiplying. Lycopene may also promote the death of prostate cancer cells.

Hold the beef on burger night

What’s the beef with red meat? Excessive intake of red meat has been linked to higher rates of cancer and cancer death in general. A 2021 study published in European Journal of Epidemiology that analyzed the results of 148 past studies on red meat found that cooked red meat is associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer, lung cancer, and kidney cancer.

How might your cheeseburger promote cancer? An October 2021 study published in Cancer Discovery suggests that diets high in red and processed meat can cause genetic mutations, leaving DNA damage that could help form tumors.

The next time you’re craving a burger, choose a healthier protein like salmon. The vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish like salmon (or trout and mackerel) may help protect against cancer. 

A 2014 study published in Nutrition and Cancer made headlines when it showed evidence of how fatty fish high in omega-3s reduce the risk for colon cancer. Researchers observed that omega-3s blocked the production of a hormone involved in creating a type of cancer called adenocarcinoma.14 Another study published in 2015 in Scientific Reports looking a people’s diet and their colorectal cancer risk observed a 21 percent decreased risk if they regularly ate sea fish and a 53 percent decreased risk if they regularly ate freshwater fish. 

If you decide to put salmon on the menu, consider cooking it in olive oil, another good source of omega-3, rather than frying it.

Say no to soda

Regular soda is loaded with a variety of sweeteners, and many products get up to 60 percent of their sugars from fructose. This type of sugar is associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay. According to the National Cancer Institute, being obese or overweight makes you two times more likely to develop gastric cancer, liver cancer, and kidney cancer. Additionally, people who are obese who survive cancer are at a higher risk of developing a second, unrelated cancer. Since obesity increases your odds of developing cancer, cutting soda may help you better manage your weight and, in turn, lower your risk.

But it may not be as simple as swapping regular soda for diet. Zero-calorie sweeteners were once thought to serve as a healthy alternative to sugar. But a 2017 review of obesity and the use of artificial sweeteners suggests they may cause changes to the gut microbiome, which could cause people to not feel full after drinking sodas sweetened with them, and thereby lead to increased intake and weight gain overall.

The solution? Drink water instead. Try crisp sparkling water and add lemon juice, crushed fruit, or mint for flavor.

Seek a healthier pick-me-up

Having more than one energy drink in a day can lead to a caffeine overdose. Excess caffeine can cause dangerous heart rhythms, nausea, anxiety, and more. Energy drinks often contain vitamins and herbal supplements as well, each of which has its own list of possible side effects when taken in excessive amounts.

For your afternoon pick-me-up, boil a pot of green tea. You’ll still feel a buzz of caffeine without the jitters. One cup of green tea has about 30 to 50 milligrams (mg) compared to a cup of joe that’s around 80 to 100 mg. A typical energy drink, meanwhile, can have up to 250 mg of caffeine per cup. 

Another benefit of green tea: It contains several compounds that may be helpful for cancer prevention. 

The National Cancer Institute explains that green tea contains polyphenols with antioxidant activity. Antioxidants reduce free radicals, or toxins that damage DNA and contribute to cancer. Along with polyphenols, the catechins in tea may block tumors from growing and spreading in the body. Green tea also helps protect against damage from UV rays, a factor that contributes to skin cancer. 

Forget fruit-flavored snacks

Just because a product has the word “fruit” in its name doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Along with excess sugar, fruit-flavored snacks often contain artificial colors like red dye 40 and yellow dye 6. Of the hundreds of artificial food colorings that have been manufactured, the FDA has approved only nine as safe and nontoxic. A 2010 animal study first drew alarms to the health hazards of artificial dyes. Male mice given artificial food coloring showed DNA damage in their colon hours later. More recently, a 2020 review published in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology cited artificial food dyes as one reason for an increase in colorectal cancer cases.

Looking for an all-natural alternative? Munch on a handful of acai berries for a healthier sweet fix. 

Acai is a popular South American fruit gaining popularity in the United States. While there are currently no human studies directly connecting acai with cancer prevention, it does have other health benefits. When eaten by itself or mixed into a juice, for example, acai can increase antioxidant activity. Antioxidants may protect cells from damage, which could protect against cancer.

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