Diet and Cancer Risk

Author: OncoLink Team
Content Contributor: Katherine Okonak, MSW, LSW
Last Reviewed: December 19, 2023

While no one food or lifestyle can prevent cancer, healthy food choices may help to lower your risk. Studies have looked at what we eat, but they have not been able to prove that certain foods can lower your risk. Experts say that a diet high in fruits and vegetables "probably" lowers cancer risk, but we don't know for sure.

What we do know is that a healthy diet, along with regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight has been shown to lower cancer risk. These three things together are known as the “cancer prevention triangle”. Together, they are thought to be the second most important step, after not smoking, in preventing cancer.

Foods Linked to a Possible Increased Cancer Risk

There are certain foods that have been linked to a possible increase in cancer risk:

Red Meat

A diet high in red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) is thought to increase your risk for colon and rectal cancers. There may be a link between red meat and pancreatic cancers, but studies have found mixed results. It is likely that eating red meat in moderation does not increase the risk of cancer. The AICR (American Institute for Cancer Research) suggests that people eat no more than 18 ounces (cooked weight) of red meats per week to reduce cancer risk.

Processed & Fermented or Cured Meats

Processed (hot dogs, bologna, and lunchmeat) and cured or fermented meats (sausage, salami) eaten regularly increases the risk of colon, rectal, and gastric cancers. There may also be a link to endometrial and pancreatic cancers. These foods, as a result of how they are prepared, have nitrosamines, nitrate, and N-nitroso-compounds (NOCs), which have been shown to cause cancer.

Salted and Pickled Foods

Foods preserved by salting, pickling, or smoking are linked to increased rates of stomach (gastric) cancers. This may be because of the presence of nitrates, high amounts of salt, and possible contamination with the bacteria H. Pylori. Foods like meat, fish, and vegetables, that are preserved with salt, can damage the lining of the stomach. They can also contain nitrates that can lead to cancer. H. Pylori is a bacteria that can be found in some foods. It damages the stomach lining and can cause stomach cancer. It is thought that it grows quickly when a person eats a lot of salt – like in salted, pickled, and smoked foods. People whose diets regularly include pickled foods have been found to have higher rates of stomach cancer.

Charred Meats

There are compounds that form as a result of cooking meats at high temperatures (pan-frying or grilling). These compounds include Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs) and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). Studies have found that eating lots of charred (or burned) meat may increase the risk of developing colon, rectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancers.

White Breads, Rice, and Processed Grains

Eating white bread, white rice, and processed grains may increase your risk for colon, rectal, and endometrial cancers because of their link to obesity. Try replacing these foods in your diet with whole grains and brown rice. Many studies have tried to link a diet high in whole grains to reduced cancer risk, but these have not always shown a benefit. The strongest link seen in these studies was that a diet high in fiber and whole-grain foods may lower colon cancer risk.

Additional Resources

The three components of the "cancer prevention triangle" (diet, physical activity, weight) are strongly interrelated and working to improve one can often lead to improvements in another. Use the links below to learn more about ways to work towards a healthier you.

References

Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. National Cancer Institute (2017).

Johnson, I. T. (2016). The cancer risk related to meat and meat products. British medical bulletin, 121(1), 73-81.

Makarem, N., Nicholson, J. M., Bandera, E. V., McKeown, N. M., & Parekh, N. (2016). Consumption of whole grains and cereal fiber in relation to cancer risk: a systematic review of longitudinal studies. Nutrition reviews, 74(6), 353-373.

Penniecook-Sawyers, J. A., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Fan, J., Beeson, L., Knutsen, S., Herring, P., & Fraser, G. E. (2016). Vegetarian dietary patterns and the risk of breast cancer in a low-risk population. British Journal of Nutrition, 115(10), 1790-1797.

Rohrmann, S., & Linseisen, J. (2016). Processed meat: the real villain?. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 75(3), 233-241.

Theodoratou, E., Timofeeva, M., Li, X., Meng, X., & Ioannidis, J. P. (2017). Nature, nurture, and cancer risks: genetic and nutritional contributions to cancer. Annual review of nutrition,37, 293-320.

WCRF/AICR Continuous Update Project Database and Findings. AICR.

Zhao, Z., Yin, Z., Pu, Z., & Zhao, Q. (2017). Association Between Consumption of Red and Processed Meat and Pancreatic Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 15(4), 486-493

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