Cancer is our country’s second leading cause of death (after heart disease), yet about 40% of cancers are said to be preventable. So, how can you lower your odds? The experts weigh in on what foods can make a difference in your diet.

By Brierley Horton, MS, RD
Updated August 04, 2020
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When it comes to what you eat and cancer risk, one of the best things you can do to lower your odds is getting to (and staying at) a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for at least 12 common cancers, says Karen Collins, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). She explains it like this: body fat is more than just a spare tire that you’re carrying around. It is a metabolically active tissue that influences hormones, growth factors, and inflammation that promote cancer development.

There are also eating habits you can practice and foods you can eat to lower your risk. “You can reduce your risk of cancer through your eating habits in two major ways. First, healthy eating patterns support antioxidant and anti-inflammatory defenses to reduce DNA damage that opens the door to cancer. Beyond that, nutrients and natural plant compounds (phytocompounds) can influence cell signaling, hormones, gene expression, and immune function; all of these are important factors in whether cancer cells grow or self-destruct,” Collins says.

Credit: Marty Baldwin

7 Cancer-Fighting Foods

So, what exactly should you be eating? Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and pulses (think beans and lentils) all deliver unique cancer-protective potential. Here are some of the best cancer-fighting foods.

Broccoli

Eating broccoli (and other cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc.) may lower your overall cancer risk. May is the key word, though, because, unfortunately, the science isn’t clear-cut yet. Still, broccoli contains compounds (called sulforaphane and glucoraphanin) that research suggests can help mop up harmful, cancer-causing food contaminants and air pollutants.

Carrots

It’s carrots orange hue that gives them their cancer-fighting powers. Their vibrant hue comes from carotenoids—compounds that act like antioxidants, cleaning up cancer-causing free radicals that damage DNA and spur cancer. Two carotenoids in particular encourage cell-to-cell communication, which controls cell growth and encourages abnormal cells to self destruct. The carotenoids are alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, both of which are in carrots.

Coffee

You may have heard that drinking coffee poses a cancer risk. Not true. In fact, there’s solid evidence that shows your coffee habit can lower your odds of endometrial and liver cancers. And some, albeit limited, research that it protects against some oral and skin cancers. Coffee seems to protect against cancer in multiple ways. It improves insulin sensitivity, thus lowering insulin which can fuel some cancerous cells. Coffee also has been found to boost levels of a compound (called sex hormone-binding globulin), which ties up estrogen; and, like insulin, estrogen feeds different cancerous cells. Coffee also seems to temper inflammation and DNA damage.

Nuts

In a study of studies (called a meta-analysis), researchers found that people who regularly ate nuts (eating about 5 to 6 servings a week) lowered their overall cancer risk by 15%. What gives nuts their cancer-fighting powers isn’t entirely clear. Remember, each nut offers a somewhat different nutrition profile. But there’s also research to suggest that regularly eating nuts could help you maintain a healthy weight, and that alone is a powerful tool against cancer.

Pulses

We’re talking beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas. This group of foods is the highest fiber whole food group. Put more simply, they deliver more fiber per serving than whole grains, fruits and veggies, and nuts. “The fiber and prebiotics in pulses can help transform the gut microbiome in ways that may reduce cancer risk,” says Cynthia Sass, RDN, and author of Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches With Pulses—the New Superfood. “Pulses are also rich in health-protective phenolic compounds, which have been shown to reduce inflammation, and prevent the growth and spread of cancer cells.”

Raspberries

A single cup of raspberries delivers around 8 grams of fiber. That’s a quarter(!) of the daily target that AICR recommends. AICR advises aiming for 30 grams of fiber a day to help lower cancer risk. These fibrous berries also boast cancer-fighting compounds like vitamin C and ellagitannins.

Strawberries

Another vitamin C-packed berry: a cup of strawberries delivers about 1.5 times your daily recommended amount. Research shows that people who eat more vitamin C are less likely to develop colon cancer, even if they drink alcohol, eat red meat, or use tobacco. And smokers who get more C in their diet are less likely to develop lung cancer.

Create a healthy cancer-fighting eating pattern that that fits your food preferences and lifestyle. It’s not about eating perfectly. Every small change, including adding cancer-fighting foods to your diet and limiting foods that increase cancer, has the potential to make a difference. “The sum, or overall eating pattern, is more important than adding up amounts of individual nutrients,” Collins explains.

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