Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, with an estimated 10 million cancer-related deaths in 2020 alone [1]. While genetics and other factors play a role, research shows thatdiet and nutrition are major modifiable risk factors for many types of cancer [2]. By making informed dietary choices, it may be possible to significantly reduce your risk of developing certain cancers. This article explores the relationship between nutrition and cancer, and provides guidance on dietary patterns and food choices that may help prevent cancer.

Understanding Cancer Risk Factors

Cancer risk factors are attributes, lifestyle habits, or exposures that increase an individual’s likelihood of developing cancer [3]. While some major risk factors like age, genetics, and family history can’t be changed, others like tobacco use, sun exposure, and diet are under our control. The incidence of cancer is determined both by unavoidable susceptibility factors and modifiable lifestyle and environmental exposures throughout life.

Understanding the risk factors you can modify allows you to take steps to lower your cancer risk. Diet is among the most significant modifiable determinants of cancer risk.

The Role of Diet in Cancer Prevention

Extensive research reveals that dietary patterns, food choices, and specific nutrients can have powerful effects, both positive and negative, on cancer risk. While no food or diet can prevent cancer completely, the foods you eat can potentially help strengthen your body’s defenses against cancer.

An unhealthful diet high in processed and red meats, refined grains, sugary food and beverages, and low in fruits, vegetables, and fiber is associated with increased risk for several common cancers. On the other hand, a diet centered around plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and healthy oils provides a variety of anticancer compounds and is associated with reduced risk [4].

The effects of diet and nutrition on cancer risk likely start early in life and accumulate over decades. Eating a wholesome diet consistently throughout your life span may be key to meaningful cancer prevention.

Cancer-Fighting Nutrients

Certain vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and other bioactive compounds in whole foods are known to have anti-cancer properties. Focusing on foods rich in these key nutrients can help reduce your cancer risk.

  • Antioxidants: Compounds like vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and selenium help reduce oxidative stress and protect against cell damage linked to increased cancer risk. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are top sources.
  • Phytochemicals: Plant-based compounds like lycopene, anthocyanins, resveratrol, flavonoids, and isothiocyanates have been shown to possess anticancer and immune-boosting properties. Tomatoes, berries, green tea, cruciferous veggies, soy, and herbs/spices are prime sources.
  • Fiber: A high-fiber diet supports detoxification and gut health, and reduces colorectal cancer risk. Excellent sources include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fatty fish, chia seeds, walnuts, and canola oil, these fats have anti-inflammatory effects linked to reduced risk of colon, prostate, and breast cancer.
  • Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and other produce from this plant family contain glucosinolates which may prevent cancer cell growth.

Foods That Reduce Cancer Risk

Incorporating more of the following foods into your regular diet can provide health-promoting nutrients that fight cancer on multiple fronts:

  • Berries: Packed with vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidant polyphenols like ellagic acid and anthocyanins that protect cells.
  • Leafy greens: Rich sources of folate, fiber, carotenoids, and glucosinolates which help curb cell mutations and tumor growth.
  • Fatty fish: Salmon, trout, sardines, and mackerel are rich in omega-3s with anti-inflammatory benefits.
  • Tomatoes: Provide antioxidant lycopene linked to reduced prostate and lung cancer risks. Especially effective when cooked.
  • Nuts and seeds: Supply fiber, vitamin E, selenium and plant sterols that protect cells. Walnuts are high in omega-3s.
  • Whole grains: Contain fiber, B vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that promote healthy cells and reduce colorectal cancer risk.
  • Extra virgin olive oil: The antioxidant polyphenols in olive oil may limit oxidative damage and suppress cancer cell growth.
  • Green tea: Rich in polyphenols like EGCG that counteract cell damage that can lead to cancer development.
  • Herbs and spices: Many contain beneficial phytochemicals. Turmeric, ginger, oregano, basil, and thyme have demonstrated anticancer potential.

The Importance of a Balanced Diet

While certain foods have proven benefits, it is important to remember that no one food or nutrient can prevent cancer alone. The key is to follow a balanced diet that incorporates a wide variety of unprocessed plant foods and limited amounts of red and processed meat, salt, and added sugars.

A diverse diet ensures you get a broad range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber, and other compounds that work together synergistically to reduce cancer risk in different ways. Relying too heavily on any single food or nutrient is unlikely to provide maximum protection.

Dietary Patterns for Cancer Prevention

Research reveals that overall dietary patterns characterized by higher intakes of nutrient-dense plant foods are associated with lower risks for many common cancers compared to Western-style diets heavy in processed and animal-based foods.

  • Mediterranean diet: This vegetable-focused diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, nuts, seeds, fish, and moderate wine is linked to reduced risks of colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers [5].
  • Plant-based diets: Diets focused on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, healthy oils, and limited meats are consistently associated with lower risks of several cancers, especially gastrointestinal cancers [6].
  • Low-sugar/low processed foods diet: Limiting sugary drinks, refined carbs, processed meats and foods high in unhealthy fats can help curb obesity and inflammation, major risk factors for multiple cancers.

As research continues, we’re learning more about how overall dietary patterns synergistically influence many aspects of health, including cancer risk.

Lifestyle Factors

While diet plays a central role, other lifestyle factors like regular exercise, maintaining healthy body weight, not smoking, and limiting alcohol also impact cancer risk significantly.

  • Physical activity: Being active supports healthy body weight, reduces inflammation and insulin resistance, and is associated with reduced risks of several cancers including breast, colon, endometrial, and lung cancer [7]. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.
  • Body weight: Obesity increases the risk of up to 13 types of cancer, including colorectal, breast, uterine, and pancreatic cancers [8]. Achieving long-term weight control through diet and exercise is key.
  • Tobacco: Smoking accounts for almost one-third of all cancer deaths [9]. If you smoke, quitting can significantly lower your risks of cancers of the lung, mouth, larynx, and esophagus.
  • Alcohol: Heavy alcohol consumption is linked to increased risk of liver, colorectal, breast, and other cancers [10]. Limiting alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 for men can reduce risk.

Consultation with Healthcare Professionals

The potential for nutrition to influence cancer risk makes it essential to discuss your diet with healthcare providers. Registered dietitians can provide personalized dietary advice taking into account your health history and specific risk factors. Always talk to your doctor before making major changes.

For those previously diagnosed with cancer, diet and nutrition choices should be customized to support treatment and recovery. Certain foods may interact with medications or treatment side effects.


A substantial portion of cancers are attributable to modifiable lifestyle factors, with diet being one of the most important. While research continues to uncover how our food choices affect cancer biology, current evidence overwhelmingly indicates that a diet abundant in a variety of colorful plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, herbs, and spices, accompanied by limited processed foods and meats, can significantly help lower cancer risk.

Combining a healthy diet with regular exercise, weight control, smoking cessation, and limited alcohol intake gives you the best chance of living a long, cancer-free life. Consulting healthcare professionals allows you to craft an individualized nutrition plan focused on cancer prevention and overall wellness. With some mindful adjustments to your lifestyle, you can feel empowered knowing you are taking proactive steps to reduce your cancer risk.


  • [1] WHO. Cancer fact sheet. 2020.
  • [2] WCRF/AICR. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. Continuous Update Project Expert Report 2018.
  • [3] American Cancer Society. Cancer Causes and Risk Factors. 2022.
  • [4] WHO. Cancer Prevention. 2022.
  • [5] Schwingshackl et al. Mediterranean diet and risk of cancer: An umbrella review of meta-analyses of observational studies and randomised trials. Nutrients. 2020.
  • [6] World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. Continuous Update Project Expert Report 2018. Available here.
  • [7] Moore et al. Association of Leisure-Time Physical Activity With Risk of 26 Types of Cancer in 1.44 Million Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2016.
  • [8] Lauby-Secretan et al. Body Fatness and Cancer–Viewpoint of the IARC Working Group. N. Engl. J. Med. 2016.
  • [9] American Cancer Society. What Do We Know About the Link Between Smoking and Cancer? 2022.
  • [10] Bagnardi et al. Alcohol consumption and site-specific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose-response meta-analysis. Br J Cancer. 2015.
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