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Reducing the risk

Wholegrain cereal, a glass of juice and wholemeal bread are healthy breakfast choices. The food we eat can affect our risk of developing cancer. There’s no ‘food prescription’ for exactly what you should eat, or how much of it, to help reduce the risk of cancer. But as the evidence grows, we can make recommendations about the balance of foods to aim for.

Read on for tips and advice to get a healthy balance overall by eating a diet that is:

  • High in fibre, fruits and vegetables
  • Low in red and processed meat, saturated fat and salt.

You can also find out more about food labels and nutrition information, how it can help you and claims to take with a pinch of salt.

For tips on making good food habits a part of your daily routine to help you keep a healthy weight, check out our Ten Top Tips page.

For more about a balanced diet, and for healthy eating tips, meal ideas and recipes visit the change for life or NHS choices websites.

Fruit and Vegetables

Choose wholegrain breakfast cereals to boost your fibre intake. Fruit and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet and can affect the risk of some cancer types, like mouth and throat cancers. They are a good source of many important nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and folate, and are an excellent source of fibre.

Try to have 5-a-day, or more

  • A portion of fruit of vegetables is an 80g serving, for example a medium-sized apple, a banana, two satsumas, three heaped tablespoons of cooked veg, or a cereal bowl’s worth of salad.
  • Tinned, dried or fresh, they all count towards your daily portions.
  • Lentils, beans and other pulses only count towards one of your daily portions as they don’t contain as many nutrients as other fruits and vegetables.
  • And a 150ml glass of fruit juice or smoothie can only be counted as one portion each day, as it is high in sugar and low in fibre.

Look for opportunities to add an extra portion of fruit or veg at each meal. Try

  • topping breakfast cereal, ideally wholegrain, with fruit
  • put some crunch in your lunch with carrot and celery sticks
  • add extra beans, mushrooms or chopped peppers to sauces and casseroles

Eating fruit and vegetables with a wide variety of colours will help you get a broad range of vitamins and minerals, as the chemicals that give these foods their colour are often the same ones that are good for you.

If you’re trying to get your children to eat more fruit and veg, research shows that tiny tastes can help get them into a new food. Don’t force them to eat something they hate, but do give them several opportunities to try a small amount of it. Working with their preferences can help too - children tend to like crunchy and sweet foods. So try them out on crunchy raw carrots or peppers as a snack.

Meat

Eating a lot of red and processed meat can increase the risk of bowel cancer, and possibly stomach and pancreatic cancer. Red meat includes all fresh, minced and frozen beef, pork and lamb. And processed meat includes ham, bacon, salami and sausages.  Eat smaller and fewer portions of red and processed meat, or choose fish or chicken instead - white meat is unlikely to increase cancer risk.

Swapping red meat for chicken or fish could help lower the risk of cancer. You could also try using beans or pulses instead of meat in your recipes.

If you cook meat, use low-temperature methods such as braising where possible. Cooking meat at high temperatures until it chars can produce cancer-causing chemicals.

Fibre

Bowel cancer is less common in people who eat lots of fibre.

Boost the fibre in your diet by choosing wholegrain varieties of starchy foods wherever possible, such as whole meal bread, whole wheat pasta and whole grain cereals. Try choosing brown rice and pulses too.

Many fruits and vegetables also contain lots of fibre, like peas, beans, onions and celery.

Salt

Foods that are high in salt or preserved using salt can increase the risk of stomach cancer. But this link tends to be seen most strongly in areas of the world where people have diets that are very high in salt. Too much salt can also increase your blood pressure and your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Try not to eat too many salt-preserved or high-salt foods. And check the salt content of processed foods and ready meals. There is often salt hidden where you wouldn't expect it and you may not be able to taste it if the foods are also high in sugar.

Taste your food at the table before adding salt, as you may well not need to add any.

Use herbs, pepper and other spices to add flavour to food, instead of salt.

You get used to how salty food usually tastes. So although you might notice a difference at first, you’ll quite quickly  adjust so that less salt tastes normal to you.

Fats

Eating too much fat, particularly saturated fat may increase the risk of breast cancer. Fats are a necessary part of our diet but high-fat diets can increase the risk of heart disease and other conditions.

Fats are a necessary part of our diet, but try not to eat too many fatty foods. In particular, try to cut down on saturated fats, which are found in fatty meat, biscuits, crisps, cheese and butter. Vegetable foods are richer in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, while meat is higher in saturated fats.

Choose lean cuts of meat and semi-skimmed or skimmed milk.

Avoid frying food in lots of oil - try steaming, braising or lightly grilling instead.

Low fat versions of things like yoghurt and salad dressings can be a simple, healthy swap – but watch out for extra sugar.

Understanding food labels

It is not always possible to tell how nutritious a food is by its appearance. Looking at food labels can guide you to make better food choices.

Nutrition information

The nutrition information box lists the amounts of calories and nutrients, such as fat, in different foods. But it can be difficult working out whether the values in these boxes are good or bad. To help you, products may also display ‘traffic light’ labels to show whether a food is high (red), medium (orange) or low (green) in sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt.

When you’re comparing products, check the information on each label is for the same quantity e.g. 100g.

The ingredients list

Check the ingredients list. The ingredients in a product are listed in order of weight. The first ingredient on the list is present in the greatest amounts and the last ingredient in present in the smallest amounts.

If fatty ingredients or sugars are fourth in the list or lower, the product is likely to be a lower fat/low sugar option. Fats and sugars can go by many different names; for a full list, go to Weight Concern’s page on understanding food labels.

Misleading labels

Nutritional food claims can be misleading. ‘Light’, ‘diet’ or ‘reduced fat’ food may have less fat than a similar product but they can still be very high in calories, fat or sugar.

For example ‘low fat’ spreads have about half the fat content of butter or margarine but are still 40% fat. So while they have less fat than so-called ordinary spread, they are still high fat foods - use them sparingly. ‘Low fat’ crisps, biscuits, cakes and sausages can still be high in fat, sugar or both.

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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
Updated: 15 September 2014