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9 Foods That May Help Reduce Your Risk of Cancer

<p>Catherine Delahaye / Getty Images</p>

Catherine Delahaye / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Jamie Johnson, RDN

Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by the uncontrolled growth and spread of cells. There are hundreds of types of cancers, each named for what area of the body they affect. Some of the most common types include breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancer.

Your risk of developing cancer depends on numerous factors, including genetics, age, body weight, and exposure to toxins, some of which are out of your control. However, while all cancers aren’t 100% preventable, your diet and lifestyle can have a profound effect on your risk of developing several types of cancers, including the most common types.

While specific foods themselves can't cure or definitively prevent cancer, certain nutrients in plant foods, fruits, legumes, vegetables, as well as other nutritious foods, have been shown to be effective in helping to reduce the risk of developing cancer.

Berries

Regularly consuming berries may help reduce your risk of cancer. Berries, such as blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries, are high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds like flavonoids and anthocyanins that help protect against cellular damage and inhibit the production of compounds that cause inflammation, which may help lower cancer risk.

Studies show that diets high in fruits, like berries, are associated with a lower risk of several types of cancers, including breast cancer and stomach cancer.

What’s more, eating berries may help protect against breast cancer-related death in people who already have breast cancer. A 2020 study that included data on nearly 9,000 women with stage I–III breast cancer found that two servings per week of blueberries was associated with a 25% lower risk of breast cancer-specific mortality.



What Are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are molecules that counteract oxidative stress. Oxidative stress happens when there are more free radicals in the body but fewer antioxidants available to remove them. A free radical is an atom, molecule, or ion that has at least one unpaired valence electron. Usually, these unpaired electrons make radicals highly chemically reactive, and can damage cells, causing illness and aging.



Citrus Fruits

Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, and lemons contain nutrients such as fiber, carotenoids, folate, vitamin C, and flavonoids. These nutrients can provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the body, which can lower your cancer risk.

contain nutrients such as fiber, carotenoids, folate, vitamin C, and flavonoids. These nutrients can provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the body, which can lower your cancer risk.

A 2023 review of 24 studies found that, compared to low intake, a higher intake of citrus fruits reduced the risk of colorectal cancer by 9%.

Apples and Pears

Including apples and pears in your diet may offer protection against some cancers, including colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and lung cancer. These fruits are high in nutrients and plant compounds known to have anticancer properties, such as vitamin C and flavonoid antioxidants.

Multiple studies have found that people who regularly consume apples and pears have a lower risk of several cancers, including breast, lung, and colorectal cancer.

The 2023 review of 24 studies mentioned above found that diets high in apples may lower the risk of colorectal cancer by as much as 25%.

Green Leafy Vegetables

Like fruits, vegetables are high in cancer-fighting nutrients and phytochemicals. A diet high in vegetables, including leafy greens, onions, and cauliflower, may help reduce cancer risk.

Green leafy vegetables, such as arugula, kale, spinach, and Swiss chard are packed with nutrients known to have anticancer effects in the body. Green leafy vegetables are especially rich in carotenoid antioxidants, such as beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which have powerful cellular-protective and anti-inflammatory properties.

Having higher blood levels of carotenoids is associated with a lower risk of several cancers.  For example, a 2021 study of 3,614 women, (1,919 of them at high risk for developing breast cancer), found that women at risk of breast cancer who had the highest blood levels of carotenoids had a significant 28.6% reduced risk of developing breast cancer, compared to women with the lowest circulating levels.

Green leafy vegetables like arugula and kale may also protect against pancreatic cancer. A 2021 study that included 915 people found that each additional serving of total, raw, and cooked cruciferous vegetables, such as kale, Swiss chard, and arugula, per week was associated with a 7-15% lower risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

The study also found that participants who ate more than 1.5 servings of raw cruciferous vegetables per week had 40% lower odds of developing pancreatic cancer than those consuming less than 0.5 servings per week. This suggests that eating raw cruciferous vegetables, such as arugula or kale salads, may be especially protective against this type of cancer.

Cruciferous Vegetables

Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and leafy greens such as kale, arugula, and Swiss chard. These vegetables have been shown to provide impressive protective effects against several health conditions, including cancer. They're concentrated in sulfur-containing phytochemicals called glucosinolates. The body converts glucosinolates into molecules called isothiocyanates, which have strong anticancer properties.

Research strongly suggests that increasing your intake of cruciferous vegetables is an effective way to lower your risk of several cancers, including breast, stomach, lung, and pancreatic cancer.

A 2020 study that included 292 people with stomach cancer and 1,168 healthy people found that, compared with the lower intake, participants with the highest intake of total cruciferous vegetables had a 41% reduced risk of developing stomach cancer. Similar to the study investigating the effects of cruciferous vegetable consumption and pancreatic cancer risk, the researchers found that consuming raw cruciferous vegetables offered the greatest protection against stomach cancer.

Allium Vegetables

Allium vegetables, including garlic, onions, and leeks contain plant compounds that may help protect against certain cancers. For example, garlic and onions are high in anticancer substances such as flavonoid antioxidants, organosulfur compounds, and vitamin C, which may inhibit cancer cell proliferation and protect cells from oxidative damage.

Study findings suggest that diets high in allium vegetables are associated with a lower risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, stomach cancer, and several other common cancers.

A 2022 meta-analysis of 17 studies found that women with the highest intake of allium vegetables had a 30% lower risk of breast cancer compared to women with the lowest intake.

Seafood

Seafood, especially fatty fish, like salmon, trout, mackerel, and sardines, is a rich source of the omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA have potent anti-inflammatory effects and also help prevent cellular damage. In addition to EPA and DHA, fatty fish provide antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin E and selenium, as well as carotenoid antioxidants, which may offer cancer-protective effects.

Regularly consuming fish may lower your risk of several common health conditions, including heart disease and certain cancers. Seafood-rich diets have been shown to offer protection against some types of cancers, including colorectal cancer.

In a 2022 review of 25 studies, it was found that people who consumed the most fish had a significantly reduced risk of colorectal cancer. Study results showed that each 50-gram (g) daily increment of fish consumption was associated with a significant 4% reduction in colorectal cancer risk.

Consumption of oily fish, like sardines and trout, has also been associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer and liver cancer.

Related: 15 Fish That Are Good Sources of Protein

Legumes

Legumes, including beans and lentils, are high in nutrients that have cancer-protective properties, such as fiber and minerals. Legumes also contain bioactive substances such as phenolic compounds, which can help reduce inflammation and protect against cellular damage, which adds to their cancer-protective effects.

Because they’re so high in fiber, adding beans and lentils to your diet may have a significant effect on your risk of developing colorectal cancer, which is associated with low-fiber diets. A 2022 review that included 29 studies on legumes found that each 100-gram (g) per day increment of legume consumption was associated with a 21% lower risk of colorectal cancer.

Fiber-rich foods help protect against colorectal cancer by diluting fecal carcinogens or cancer-causing compounds, increasing stool bulk, protecting against constipation, and increasing the production of short-chain fatty acids, which are compounds that have cancer-protective effects in the digestive system.

Regularly eating legumes may also help lower your risk of other cancers, including prostate cancer and breast cancer.

Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices like turmeric, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and ginger contain plant compounds that may help protect against cancer. For example, turmeric contains curcumin, which is a polyphenol that has powerful anticancer properties. Curcumin has been shown to induce apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in cancer cells and suppress signaling pathways involved in the invasion and spread of cancer cells.

Rosmarinic acid, which is concentrated in rosemary and oregano, and apigenin, which is found in parsley, have also been shown to have anticancer effects because it helps protects against oxidative stress in your body.

Because they’re rich in cancer-fighting compounds, incorporating herbs and spices into your diet may help lower your risk of certain cancers. In fact, herbs and spices are commonly used in dietary patterns associated with reduced cancer risk, such as the Mediterranean diet, which is high in herbs and spices like oregano, rosemary, garlic, and paprika.

Related: The 12 Best Herbs and Spices for Better Health

Foods to Limit or Avoid

While following a diet high in minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods and regularly incorporating foods known to have anticancer effects may help lower your risk of developing certain cancers, it’s also important to limit your intake of foods linked to increased cancer risk.

Although it’s usually not necessary to completely avoid the following foods and drinks, limiting your intake and replacing them with healthier alternatives could help lower your risk of developing cancer and several other health conditions, like heart disease.

  • Fried foods

  • Ultra-processed foods

  • Fast food

  • Food and drinks high in added sugar

  • Alcohol

  • Red and processed meat

  • Refined carbs

Consuming these foods and drinks too often may increase your risk of cancer by contributing to inflammation, cellular damage, obesity, and other cancer risk factors.

For example, fried food intake is significantly linked to increased cancer risk and cancer mortality. Studies show that diets high in fried foods are linked with a higher risk of developing several cancers, including breast, gastric, and pancreatic cancer.

A 2023 review of 18 studies found that a high intake of fried foods could increase the risk of stomach cancer by more than 50%.

Alcohol, sugary foods and drinks, processed and red meat, and ultra-processed foods like sugary cereals and packaged snack foods have also been linked to cancer risk, which is why it’s best to limit your intake of these products and replace them with more nutritious alternatives.

Which Diets Are Best for Helping to Prevent Cancer?

Through decades of scientific research, scientists have narrowed down dietary patterns that can be protective against cancer. Diets known to mitigate cancer risk have commonalities, such as being high in plant foods like vegetables, fruits, and legumes, and limiting foods and drinks linked to chronic disease risk, such as added sugar and fast food.

Mediterranean diets, or the eating patterns of people living along the coast of the Mediterranean sea, have been consistently linked to lower disease risk, including reduced cancer risk. Studies show that Mediterranean-style diets may lower the risk of several cancers, including common cancers such as breast, colon, prostate, and stomach cancer.

Mediterranean diets and other eating patterns that have been shown to reduce cancer risk, such as plant-based diets, are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that may help protect against cancer by preventing cellular damage and reducing inflammation.

Additionally, these eating patterns help prevent obesity, which is a major risk factor for several types of cancer, including breast cancer and prostate cancer. In addition to protecting against cancer, following a nutritious, well-rounded diet can also help lower your risk of developing other serious health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and liver disease.

A Quick Review

Though some cancer risk factors are out of your control, following a healthy diet and lifestyle is one of the best ways to lower the likelihood of developing cancer.

Studies show that diets rich in foods like fruits, vegetables, and legumes may protect against several types of cancers, including breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer.

While no one food will protect you from developing cancer, following a diet high in nutrient-dense foods and limiting foods and drinks linked to increased cancer risk is one of the best ways to support your overall health while mitigating your risk of chronic health conditions, like cancer.

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