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Diet and cancer - different foods and nutrients

Try snacking on fruit instead of sweet and fatty foodsThe link between diet and cancer is complex and difficult to unravel. This is because our diet is made up of lots of different foods and nutrients. Most of these affect our risk of cancer, often in combination with one another. The genes you inherit also affect the way diet influences your cancer risk.

Scientists need to conduct very large studies to see which specific foods protect us from cancer, and which cause it. Many of these studies are underway and their results are already providing us with firmer answers.

For now, we know about the general types of food that can help to keep us healthy. And we know that a balanced diet will help to maintain a healthy body weight, which can itself reduce the risk of many cancers.

Fruit and vegetables

Eating lots of fruit and vegetables can reduce your risk of several cancers. 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.

Our advice

Try to get plenty of fruit and vegetables in your diet. 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. Check out our fruit and vegetables page for more on portion sizes and tips for increasing your fruit and veg intake.

Meat

Eating less red and processed meat will help you reduce your risk of bowel cancer. Eating lots of red and processed meat can increase your risk of bowel cancer, and possibly stomach cancer. Red meat includes all fresh, minced and frozen beef, pork and lamb. Processed meat includes ham, bacon, salami and sausages. White meat, such as chicken, is unlikely to increase your risk of cancer.

Our advice 

Eat smaller and fewer portions of red and processed meat. Try using beans or pulses instead of meat in your recipes. When you do cook meat, use low-temperature methods such as braising. Cooking meat at high temperatures until it chars can produce cancer-causing chemicals.

Salty foods

High-salt or salt-preserved foods may increase your risk of stomach cancer and possibly bowel cancer. Foods that are high in salt or preserved using salt can increase your risk of cancers of the stomach and nasopharynx, the bit where the back of your nose meets your throat. It is unlikely that the small amounts of table salt used in cooking or flavouring will strongly influence your risk of cancer. But too much salt can increase your blood pressure and your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Our advice

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.

Fibre

Eating lots of fibre will reduce your risk of bowel cancer.Fibre-rich foods can reduce the risk of bowel cancer by at least a quarter. These include fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, wholemeal and wholegrain bread, brown rice and pulses.

Our advice 

Boost the fibre in your diet by choosing wholegrain varieties of starchy foods wherever possible, such as wholemeal bread and wholegrain cereals. Many fruits and vegetables also contain lots of fibre, especially peas, spinach, apples, avocados, pears, berries. Other fruit and vegetables that contain moderate amounts of fibre include Brussels sprouts, green beans, broccoli, corn, spinach, carrots and oranges.

Fats

Avoiding high-fat foods can help your reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease. Fats are a necessary part of our diet but high-fat diets can increase our risk of cancer, heart disease and other conditions. Vegetable foods are richer in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, while meat is higher in saturated fats. 

There is evidence that eating too much saturated fat may increase your risk of breast cancer.

Our advice

Try not to eat too many fatty foods. In particular, try to cut down on saturated fats as contained in fatty meat, biscuits, crisps, cheese and butter. Choose lean cuts of meat and semi-skimmed or skimmed milk. Try to avoid frying food in lots of oil - try steaming, braising or lightly grilling instead.

Vitamins and minerals

It is important to get a balanced combination of vitamins and minerals. Vitamins and minerals, such as folate, selenium, calcium, and vitamins A, C and E, could reduce your risk of many cancers. It is still unclear which specific vitamins or minerals may do so. But it is likely that you need a combination of all of them.

Our advice

Eat lots of different fruit and vegetables to get a balanced complement of vitamin and minerals. Don't rely on supplements - they do not substitute for a balanced diet and could even cause you harm.

Fish

Eating lots of fish may reduce your risk of bowel cancer. Fish could reduce your risk of bowel cancer, although this still needs to be conclusively shown.

Our advice 

Try eating more fish instead of red or processed meat. When poached, baked or steamed, it is especially good for you.

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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
Updated: 2 December 2010