Social Science Series #12: The role of nutrition in cancer prevention


Cancer, a complex and multifaceted group of diseases characterized by the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells, continues to be a significant global health concern. While advancements in medical research and treatment options have improved outcomes for many cancer patients, the importance of preventive measures cannot be overstated. Nutrition plays a pivotal role in cancer prevention, with an increasing body of evidence highlighting the impact of dietary choices on reducing the risk of developing various types of cancer.

Source: National Cancer Institute, 2021.

Understanding Cancer causes

Before delving into the role of nutrition, it is crucial to understand the fundamental aspects of cancer development. Cancer arises due to genetic mutations that lead to uncontrolled cell growth. These mutations can be caused by a variety of factors, including genetic predisposition, exposure to carcinogens, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices. While some risk factors are beyond our control, such as genetic makeup and age, adopting a healthy lifestyle and making informed dietary choices can significantly contribute to preventing the onset of cancer.

Source: Mayo Clinic, 2022.

Relationship between cancer and nutrition

The types of food we consume play a crucial role in determining our susceptibility to various forms of cancer. Diets that are high in energy and fat content are often linked to obesity, which is a known risk factor for certain types of cancer. On the contrary, embracing a diverse range of nutritious foods can serve as a protective measure against cancer.

By incorporating foods from all five food groups in the recommended portions, individuals can not only maintain a balanced and engaging diet but also ensure that their bodies receive a spectrum of essential nutrients. This practice of consuming a variety of foods not only supports overall well-being but also plays a significant role in reducing the likelihood of developing diseases. Embracing a diverse diet is not only beneficial for health but also enjoyable, offering a wealth of flavors and nutrients that contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

Source: Better Health Channel, 2023.

Foods and drinks linked to Cancer

Red Meats

Colorectal cancer has been linked to the consumption of red meat such as beef, pork, venison, and lamb. However, it doesn’t mean bidding a permanent farewell to favorites like hamburgers. Instead, regulating the intake of red meat by consuming it less frequently and in smaller portions is recommended.

A largely plant-based diet is encouraged, with vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruits, nuts, and seeds constituting two-thirds of your diet, while lean animal protein and dairy products make up the remaining third. Dietitians advise limiting red meat consumption to under 18 ounces per week. Additionally, the cooking temperature of red meat matters; char-grilled meats have more potential carcinogens than those prepared at lower temperatures using methods like baking or sous vide.

When opting for red meat, choosing options with less marbling, trimming fat, or marinating before cooking is advisable. Other protein sources like plant protein, poultry, and seafood are also good alternatives.

Processed Meats

Another category with an increased cancer risk is processed meat, which includes deli meats, hotdogs, ham, bacon, and sausage. Preservation methods involving nitrates and nitrites can heighten the risk of colorectal and stomach cancers. Making small changes, such as choosing nitrite and nitrate-free options or those with lower sodium and fat content when shopping for deli meats, is a good start.


While there are debates about the health risks and benefits of alcohol, it has been linked to an increased risk of various cancers. Alcohol causes tissue damage over time, leading to changes in DNA and elevated cancer risk. Although newer recommendations suggest avoiding alcohol entirely, and for those who choose to consume it, moderation is key – one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men.

Ultra-processed Food and Drinks

Indirectly linked to cancer risk due to elevated sugar and sodium levels, ultra-processed food and drinks can lead to weight gain and obesity. Reducing the consumption of these calorie-rich, nutritionally poor options by focusing on moderation and opting for smaller portions is recommended.

Food and Drinks with Added Sugar

Products with added sugar or artificial sweeteners are also indirectly linked to cancer through their association with weight gain and obesity. While studies on the direct cancer risk of artificial sweeteners yield mixed results, the general recommendation is to approach them, like sugar, in moderation.

Source: MD Anderson Cancer Center, 2023.

Reducing Cancer risk through optimal nutrition

One of the most effective approaches to preventing cancer and promoting overall health is embracing the Mediterranean diet, which prioritizes natural and plant-based foods. This entails increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean proteins while minimizing the consumption of red meat and pre-packaged foods. Here are some tips you can follow:

Incorporate more fruits and vegetables

A valuable guideline, according to the American Cancer Society, is to “eat the rainbow.” The pigments responsible for the color of fruits and vegetables contain elements that may lower cancer risk. Strive to include at least three different colors of fruits and vegetables in your daily diet. For instance:

  • Red: Include apples, tomatoes, and red cabbage.
  • Orange: Opt for cantaloupe, carrots, and oranges.
  • Yellow: Include bananas, lemons, and pineapples.
  • Green: Prioritize broccoli and leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collard greens.
  • Blue/purple: Integrate beets, grapes, blueberries, and rhubarb.

The diverse vitamins and minerals in these colorful foods play a crucial role in maintaining cell health and ensuring optimal bodily functions. Aim to make half of your plate consist of fruits and vegetables, with the remaining half divided between whole grains and lean proteins, whether from meat, fish, or plant-based sources.

The diverse vitamins and minerals in these colorful foods play a crucial role in maintaining cell health and ensuring optimal bodily functions. Aim to make half of your plate consist of fruits and vegetables, with the remaining half divided between whole grains and lean proteins, whether from meat, fish, or plant-based sources.

Consider vitamin D supplements

Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with an elevated risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancer. While few foods naturally contain high levels of vitamin D, some products like soy, almond, and oak milk may be fortified with it.

Sunlight exposure aids in increasing vitamin D levels, and supplements may be beneficial for certain individuals. Consult your healthcare provider to determine if vitamin D supplements are suitable for you.

Embrace a high-fiber diet

Foods rich in fiber contribute to prolonged satiety, preventing the urge for snacks shortly after meals. Research indicates that fiber-rich foods release acetate, an anti-appetite molecule that signals fullness to the brain.

Diets abundant in fiber are linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer. Moreover, these foods play a crucial role in weight management by promoting a feeling of fullness. Examples of high-fiber foods include:

  • Whole grain cereals.
  • Beans and lentils.
  • Nuts.
  • Blueberries.
  • Apples.

Source: Cleveland Clinic, 2022; American Cancer Society, 2021.

Getting started on eating healthier

If your current diet leans more towards fast-food options than a plant-based paradigm, it simply means you have to start adopting a healthier eating routine. Making changes can be challenging, but setting small and attainable goals can significantly facilitate achieving larger objectives.

It’s essential to recognize that food holds significance in our lives. It serves as a medium for socialization, celebration, and strengthening bonds when cooking together. As you strive to reduce your cancer risk through a nutritious diet, take this opportunity to integrate your eating habits into your lifestyle.

Food is important in a lot of ways. For some, it’s a source of comfort, while for others, it fosters social connections. Embracing these aspects is crucial, but in the healthiest manner possible. Enjoying a slice of cake on your birthday or indulging at a barbecue is absolutely fine. The key is to maintain a balance, as it’s the daily repetition of such practices that can lead to adverse long-term effects.

Source: Cleveland Clinic, 2022.

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