Diet and cancer: the benefits of a healthy diet

Diet and cancer: how are they related?

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important for everyone, but did you know that it can affect the prognosis for cancer patients? According to the American Cancer Society one-third of all cancer deaths in the United States each year are linked to diet and physical activity, including being overweight or obese, while another third is caused by tobacco products. In this article we will go dive into the relationship between diet and cancer [1].

Many studies have already demonstrated that physical activity and a healthy diet can help not only reduce the lifetime risk of developing cancer, but also reduce the risk of relapse and fight the growth of new cancers [2]. In addition, a healthy lifestyle can also reduce the risk of a wide range of complications ranging from cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis to depression and diabetes [3].

Diet and cancer: does a low fat diet have an impact?

diet and cancer

A number of studies have shown that maintaining a diet which consists primarily of plant-based products (such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrain products, lentils, beans, and nuts) is ideal for cancer survivors [2]. Additionally, studies have found that certain fats might also influence cancer risk, although more research is required as the findings are not always consistent. One study has shown that breast cancer patients who eat a low fat diet after being diagnosed have higher survival rates than those who don’t and their risk of relapse drops by 23%. Other studies covering diet and cancer show that it especially the trans-fats that need to be avoided, or that there is an increased risk of breast cancer in ER+/PR+ disease, but not ER-/PR- tumors. [4] [5]

One may think that organically grown/manufactured foods may also help reduce the risk of developing cancer or relapsing, but recent articles mention there is no difference in developing cancer when comparing organic versus non-organic food consumption [6] [7].

Some observational research covering diet and cancer has suggested that the use of alcohol has both positive and negative health effects: limited quantities of alcohol (one glass per day for women and two glasses per day for men) can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, larger quantities of alcohol can increase the risk of certain cancers and may have serious side effects, such as mucous membrane infection or a higher risk of relapse [8].

During treatment, some doctors recommend a protein-rich diet which consists of fish, lean meat, poultry, skimmed dairy products, nuts, seeds, pulses and soya products rather than red and processed meat.

The Anticancer Fund has compiled a guide to general eating recommendations based on research by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund. Studies suggest that following these recommendations was associated with decreased mortality rates and improved quality of life [9].

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Healthy Eating Recommendations related to diet and cancer:

(Compiled by the Anticancer Fund)

  • At least five portions (at least 400 grams) of fruit and vegetables every day. Keep a varied selection and eat them as a snack. Try to include a portion of fruit or vegetables with every meal. They are crammed with beneficial vitamins, minerals, fibers and other bioactive ingredients, which could aid in the prevention of cancer.
  • Choose wholegrain products instead of refined (processed) grains and sugars. Eat wholegrain bread, rice, pasta and grains, as these are rich in dietary fiber. They are believed to combat the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. They may play a role in preventing gastric and colon cancers and also in hormone-dependent cancers like breast and prostate cancer. Refined products have lost a large proportion of their dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals because they are ground and the bran and seeds removed.
  • Limit your intake of refined carbohydrates and sweetened drinks (soft drinks) as well as processed food, including pastries, fast foods, sweetened cereals and other sweets. These contain a great deal of added sugars, fats and/or salt, provide no added value to your diet and can interfere with the insulin action which can lead to insulin resistance.
  • Try to achieve the best possible energy balance, which means that the energy introduced (through your diet) must be balanced with the energy expended. Pay attention to the total calorie intake in order to achieve and retain a healthy body weight. It is important that you are aware that some calorie-rich products are good for you and consequently can be a part of a healthy dietary regime, including nuts, dried fruit, fatty fish, vegetable oils and others.
  • Limit red meat (beef, pork and lamb) and processed meat (salami, ham, sausage, etc.) consumption to less than 500 grams a week. Various epidemiological studies have linked the high consumption of red and processed meat to an increased risk of colon cancer. A study by the WCRF/AICR has shown that eating 100 grams of red meat every day increases the risk of colon cancer by 17% compared to someone who eats no red meat. Eating 100 grams of processed meat a day meanwhile increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 36% when compared to someone who eats no processed meat.
  • Fish, poultry and pulses are a good alternative to beef, pork, mutton and lamb. When eating meat, select lean cuts and eat small portions.
  • When preparing meat and fish, the best option is to steam, poach or bake it at a relatively low temperature. Cooking meat at a high temperature over an extended period or barbecuing it, could release certain harmful substances, such as heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which could increase the risk of some types of cancer.
  • Cut your salt intake, as excessive salt consumption increases the chance of high blood pressure and gastric cancer. Salt is used as a preservative and can be found in many processed products, like bread, snacks, breakfast cereals and ready-made products such as soups and sauces.
  • Males should drink no more than two glasses of alcohol a day and females one glass. One glass is the equivalent of 250 ml of beer, 100 ml of wine or 25 ml of liquor.

Check with your doctor or dietician to determine what eating guidelines are the best for your situation. Diet and cancer: pay attention to it, even as a preventive measure. Bon appétit!

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[2] Holman and White Nutrition Journal 2011, 10:60

[3] Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2015; 12: 33. Published online 2015 March 6. doi: 10.1186/s12966-015-0195-3



[6] Bradbury K.E., Balkwill A., Spencer E.A., Roddam A.W., Reeves G.K., Green J., Key T.J., Beral V., Pirie K., Banks E., et al. Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom. Br. J. Cancer. 2014;110:2321–2326. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2014.148.

[7] Bradbury et al. British Journal of Cancer (2014) 110, 2321–2326. doi:10.1038/bjc.2014.148

[8] Bagnardi et al. NIH. Alcohol consumption and risk of cancer.

[9] The Anticancer Fund: “A Guide for Cancer Patients on Nutrition and Physical Exercise, Both During and After Treatment”