What are the Best Cancer Fighting Foods (2023)
Can foods and diet influence your risk of getting cancer? What types of foods reduce your risk and types that might increase your risk? Find out the answers below.
Are You Eating Enough Cancer-Fighting Foods?While we often think of the word “cancer” as one type of disease, this term actually encompasses over 100 different cellular disorders in the body. Cancer refers to uncontrolled cell division that leads to a tumor or abnormal cell growth. When abnormal cells divide without control, they can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body, including the blood and lymphatic systems.
What does work when it comes to lowering inflammation and fighting free radical damage? The key is consuming plenty of cancer-fighting foods with antioxidants and natural anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. This means avoiding packaged and processed foods and focusing on only those that do not contain antibiotics, chemicals or toxins. Buying foods that are organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised and additive-free can greatly lower the toxic load of your diet.
Findings from the 2010 European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) that looked at dietary factors associated with higher cancer risks showed that there’s significant associations between cancer risk and low intakes of certain nutrients. (R) Data from the investigation that was published in the European Journal of Cancer showed an inverse association between higher intakes of vitamin C, carotenoids, retinol, α-tocopherol and fiber with overall cancer risk.
After following over 519,978 participants living in 10 European nations, results showed that those who most closely followed a style of eating similar to the Mediterranean diet had the most protection against cancer. High intake of cancer-fighting foods like vegetables, fruit, fish, calcium-rich foods and fiber was associated with a decreased risk of colorectal, lung and breast cancers, while red and processed meat intake, alcohol intake, unhealthy body mass index (BMI), and abdominal obesity were associated with an increased risk. Being physically active and obtaining enough vitamin D also helped lower cancer susceptibility.
Meanwhile, a keto diet that eliminates excess refined sugar and other processed carbohydrates may be effective in reducing or fighting cancer. It’s not a coincidence that some of the best cancer-fighting foods are on the keto diet food list.
Foods and Habits that Increase Your Cancer Risk
Inflammation is the underlying issue that dictates cancerous tumor initiation, progression and growth. Studies suggest that 30 percent to 40 percent of all kinds of cancer can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle and dietary measures! (R) And other sources claim that this number is in fact much higher, with around 75 percent of cancer cases being lifestyle-related.
Here are examples of some cancer-causing foods you might not realize are in your diet:
1. Processed Meats
While quality meats, fish and dairy products can be included in an anti-cancer diet, processed meats are definitely something to avoid. The American Cancer Society states on their website that “The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified processed meat as a carcinogen, something that causes cancer. And it has classified red meat as a probable carcinogen, or something that probably causes cancer.” (R) A recent meta-analysis of 800 studies found evidence that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day (equal to about 4 strips of bacon or one hot dog) increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
Processed meats are those that have been treated, altered or preserved to improve taste and prolong freshness. They can contain additives such as nitrates and tend to be very high in sodium. A clue that is a meat is processed is if it’s been prepared in any of the following ways: salting, curing, smoking. Examples of processed meats include hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, and some deli meats/cold-cuts. (R)
2. Fried, Burnt and Overly Cooked Foods
In early 2017, Britain’s Food Standards Agency launched a campaign to help people better understand, and to avoid, the toxin called acrylamide. Acrylamide is found in things like cigarette smoke and is also used in industrial processes like making dyes and plastics. What’s surprising is that acrylamide is also a chemical that forms on certain foods, especially starchy foods like bread, crackers, cakes and potatoes, when they are cooked for long periods at high temperatures. (R)
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen” based on data showing it can increase the risk of some types of cancer in lab animals. (R) Acrylamide is mainly found in highly-cooked plant foods like potato and grain products, such as French fries, potato chips, and to some extent coffee. The chemical reaction occurs when certain starchy foods are cooked above about 250° F. This causes sugars and the amino acid asparagine to create acrylamide. Note: Acrylamide does not form (or forms at lower levels) in dairy, meat, and fish products.
3. Added Sugar
Sugar can do more than increase your calorie intake and contribute to an expanding waistline— high consumption of added sugar has also been associated with increased cancer risk. There’s evidence that added sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup, may increase the risk of esophageal cancer, small intestine cancer, colon cancer and breast cancer. (R) A number of studies have found that sugar not only contributes to problems like obesity and diabetes, but is also linked to increased growth of tumors and metastasis.
Here’s another reason to avoid too much sugar: studies have found that people getting 17 to 21 percent of calories from added sugar face a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to those who got just 8 percent of their calories from sugar. (R)
4. Foods High in Additives
A 2016 study published in Cancer Research discovered a link between common food additives and colon cancer. Researchers at Georgia State University’s Institute for Biomedical Sciences found that mice that regularly ingested the dietary emulsifiers called polysorbate-80 and carboxymethylcellulose experienced exacerbated tumor development and increased, low-grade inflammation and colon carcinogenesis. (R)
These emulsifiers act as “detergent-like” ingredients in the gut, significantly changing the species composition of the gut microbiome. Alterations in bacterial species can result in bacteria expressing more flagellins and lipopolysaccharides; in other words, changes in the microbiome can interfere with functions of the immune system, promote inflammation and increase harmful gene expressions. What types of processed foods and products contain these emulsifiers? Examples include dairy products such as ice cream, creamy beauty products, toothpaste, mouthwash, laxatives, diet pills, water-based paints, detergents and even vaccines.
5. Rice Products
Drinking water contaminated with arsenic can increase a person’s risk of lung, skin and bladder cancers. That’s why there are clear limits set for the amount of arsenic allowed in water. But what about the arsenic present in the food supply? Turns out, most Americans get more arsenic from the foods in their diet than from the water they drink. So is arsenic poisoning from foods like rice something you need to consider?
While babies potentially face the highest risk, excess arsenic isn’t good for any of us. A 2012 Consumer Reports investigation found arsenic in every brand of infant rice cereals it tested – nearly ten times the legal limit for drinking water! Subsequent testing was even more dire: just one serving of infant rice cereal can put children over the weekly maximum advised by Consumer Reports. (R)
According to the The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) website, “Heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead are naturally present in water and soil. In some places, intense concentrations exist as a result of industrial pollution and decades of agricultural use of lead- and arsenic-based pesticides.” (R) Organizations like the EWG and the World Health Organization now recommend limiting consumption of rice and rice-based foods (including those containing rice flour) when possible and instead eat a varied diet of healthy lower-arsenic grains and sweeteners.
Just like with heart disease, diabetes, leaky gut syndrome and other autoimmune disorders, free radical damage or oxidative stress from inflammation is truly at the root of cancer formation. What does this mean in terms of choosing the very best cancer-fighting foods that you can? Lots of fruit and vegetables can help lower the risk of cancer and offer protective elements so these should be the bases of your diet. On top of that, obtaining enough healthy proteins and fatty acids keeps your immune system working properly and prevents muscle wasting, deficiencies, or hormonal and nerve problems.
Best Cancer-Fighting Foods
Broccoli contains sulforaphane, a plant compound found in cruciferous vegetables that may have potent anticancer properties.
One test-tube study showed that sulforaphane reduced the size and number of breast cancer cells by up to 75% (Clin Cancer Res. 2010).
Similarly, an animal study found that treating mice with sulforaphane helped kill off prostate cancer cells and reduced tumor volume by more than 50% (Carcinogenesis. 2004).
Some studies have also found that a higher intake of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli may be linked to a lower risk of colorectal cancer.
One analysis of 35 studies showed that eating more cruciferous vegetables was associated with a lower risk of colorectal and colon cancer (Ann Oncol. 2013).
Including broccoli with a few meals per week may come with some cancer-fighting benefits.
However, keep in mind that the available research hasn’t looked directly at how broccoli may affect cancer in humans.
Instead, it has been limited to test-tube, animal and observational studies that either investigated the effects of cruciferous vegetables, or the effects of a specific compound in broccoli. Thus, more studies are needed.
For example, an analysis looked at the results of five studies and concluded that eating carrots may reduce the risk of stomach cancer by up to 26% (Trusted Source).
Another study found that a higher intake of carrots was associated with 18% lower odds of developing prostate cancer (Trusted Source).
One study analyzed the diets of 1,266 participants with and without lung cancer. It found that current smokers who did not eat carrots were three times as likely to develop lung cancer, compared to those who ate carrots more than once per week (Trusted Source).
Try incorporating carrots into your diet as a healthy snack or delicious side dish just a few times per week to increase your intake and potentially reduce your risk of cancer.
Still, remember that these studies show an association between carrot consumption and cancer, but don’t account for other factors that may play a role.
One study followed 1,905 people with a history of colorectal tumors, and found that those who consumed more cooked, dried beans tended to have a decreased risk of tumor recurrence (Trusted Source).
An animal study also found that feeding rats black beans or navy beans and then inducing colon cancer blocked the development of cancer cells by up to 75% (Trusted Source).
According to these results, eating a few servings of beans each week may increase your fiber intake and help lower the risk of developing cancer.
However, the current research is limited to animal studies and studies that show association but not causation. More studies are needed to examine this in humans, specifically.
4. BerriesBerries are high in anthocyanins, plant pigments that have antioxidant properties and may be associated with a reduced risk of cancer.
In one human study, 25 people with colorectal cancer were treated with bilberry extract for seven days, which was found to reduce the growth of cancer cells by 7% (Trusted Source).
Another small study gave freeze-dried black raspberries to patients with oral cancer and showed that it decreased levels of certain markers associated with cancer progression (Trusted Source).
One animal study found that giving rats freeze-dried black raspberries reduced esophageal tumor incidence by up to 54% and decreased the number of tumors by up to 62% (Trusted Source).
Similarly, another animal study showed that giving rats a berry extract was found to inhibit several biomarkers of cancer (Trusted Source).
Based on these findings, including a serving or two of berries in your diet each day may help inhibit the development of cancer. Keep in mind that these are animal and observational studies looking at the effects of a concentrated dose of berry extract, and more human research is needed.
5. CinnamonCinnamon is well-known for its health benefits, including its ability to reduce blood sugar and ease inflammation (Trusted Source, Trusted Source).
In addition, some test-tube and animal studies have found that cinnamon may help block the spread of cancer cells.
A test-tube study found that cinnamon extract was able to decrease the spread of cancer cells and induce their death (Trusted Source).
Another test-tube study showed that cinnamon essential oil suppressed the growth of head and neck cancer cells, and also significantly reduced tumor size (Trusted Source).
An animal study also showed that cinnamon extract induced cell death in tumor cells, and also decreased how much tumors grew and spread (Trusted Source).
Including 1/2–1 teaspoon (2–4 grams) of cinnamon in your diet per day may be beneficial in cancer prevention, and may come with other benefits as well, such as reduced blood sugar and decreased inflammation.
However, more studies are needed to understand how cinnamon may affect cancer development in humans.
6. NutsResearch has found that eating nuts may be linked to a lower risk of certain types of cancer.
For instance, a study looked at the diets of 19,386 people and found that eating a greater amount of nuts was associated with a decreased risk of dying from cancer (Br J Nutr. 2015).
Another study followed 30,708 participants for up to 30 years and found that eating nuts regularly was associated with a decreased risk of colorectal, pancreatic and endometrial cancers (Trusted Source).
Other studies have found that specific types of nuts may be linked to a lower cancer risk. For example, Brazil nuts are high in selenium, which may help protect against lung cancer in those with a low selenium status (Trusted Source).
Similarly, one animal study showed that feeding mice walnuts decreased the growth rate of breast cancer cells by 80% and reduced the number of tumors by 60% (Trusted Source).
These results suggest that adding a serving of nuts to your diet each day may reduce your risk of developing cancer in the future.
Still, more studies in humans are needed to determine whether nuts are responsible for this association, or whether other factors are involved.
7. Olive OilOlive oil is loaded with health benefits, so it’s no wonder it’s one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet.
Several studies have even found that a higher intake of olive oil may help protect against cancer.
One massive review made up of 19 studies showed that people who consumed the greatest amount of olive oil had a lower risk of developing breast cancer and cancer of the digestive system than those with the lowest intake (Trusted Source).
Another study looked at the cancer rates in 28 countries around the world and found that areas with a higher intake of olive oil had decreased rates of colorectal cancer (Trusted Source).
Swapping out other oils in your diet for olive oil is a simple way to take advantage of its health benefits. You can drizzle it over salads and cooked vegetables, or try using it in your marinades for meat, fish or poultry.
Though these studies show that there may be an association between olive oil intake and cancer, there are likely other factors involved as well. More studies are needed to look at the direct effects of olive oil on cancer in people.
8. Turmeric (Curcumin)Turmeric is a spice well-known for its health-promoting properties. Curcumin, its active ingredient, is a chemical with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and even anticancer effects.
One study looked at the effects of curcumin on 44 patients with lesions in the colon that could have become cancerous. After 30 days, 4 grams of curcumin daily reduced the number of lesions present by 40% (Trusted Source).
In a test-tube study, curcumin was also found to decrease the spread of colon cancer cells by targeting a specific enzyme related to cancer growth (Trusted Source).
Another test-tube study showed that curcumin helped kill off head and neck cancer cells (Trusted Source).
Curcumin has also been shown to be effective in slowing the growth of lung, breast and prostate cancer cells in other test-tube studies (Trusted Source, Trusted Source, Trusted Source).
For the best results, aim for at least 1/2–3 teaspoons (1–3 grams) of ground turmeric per day. Use it as a ground spice to add flavor to foods, and pair it with black pepper to help boost its absorption.
9. Citrus FruitsEating citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, grapefruits and oranges has been associated with a lower risk of cancer in some studies.
One large study found that participants who ate a higher amount of citrus fruits had a lower risk of developing cancers of the digestive and upper respiratory tracts (Trusted Source).
A review looking at nine studies also found that a greater intake of citrus fruits was linked to a reduced risk of pancreatic cancer (Trusted Source).
Finally, a review of 14 studies showed that a high intake, or at least three servings per week, of citrus fruit reduced the risk of stomach cancer by 28% (Trusted Source).
These studies suggest that including a few servings of citrus fruits in your diet each week may lower your risk of developing certain types of cancer.
Keep in mind that these studies don’t account for other factors that may be involved. More studies are needed on how citrus fruits specifically affect cancer development.
10. SoyIn one study, The Shanghai Breast Cancer Survival Study (JAMA. 2009), a large, population-based cohort study of 5,042 female breast cancer survivors. Over an average follow-up of 3.9 years, soy food consumption was significantly associated with lower risk of death and breast cancer recurrence.
A review of 35 studies (Plos One. 2014) found that soy intake could lower the risk of breast cancer for both pre- and post-menopausal women in Asian countries. However, for women in Western countries, pre- or post-menopausal, there is no evidence to suggest an association between intake of soy isoflavone and breast cancer.
Another recent review of 14 studies (Plos One. 2020) found that tofu intake was associated with a lower risk of breast cancer. Tofu (bean curd), is a popular food derived from soy in Asia.
Lycopene is a compound found in tomatoes that is responsible for its vibrant red color as well as its anticancer properties. Several studies have found that an increased intake of lycopene and tomatoes could lead to a reduced risk of prostate cancer.
A review of 17 studies also found that a higher intake of raw tomatoes, cooked tomatoes and lycopene were all associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer (J Nutr Sci Vitaminol. 2013).
Another study of 47,365 people found that a greater intake of tomato sauce, in particular, was linked to a lower risk of developing prostate cancer (J Natl Cancer Inst. 2002).
To help increase your intake, include a serving or two of tomatoes in your diet each day by adding them to sandwiches, salads, sauces or pasta dishes.
Still, remember that these studies show there may be an association between eating tomatoes and a reduced risk of prostate cancer, but they don’t account for other factors that could be involved.
12. GarlicThe active component in garlic is allicin, a compound that has been shown to kill off cancer cells in multiple test-tube studies (Trusted Source, Trusted Source, Trusted Source).
Several studies have found an association between garlic intake and a lower risk of certain types of cancer.
One study of 543,220 participants found that those who ate lots of Allium vegetables, such as garlic, onions, leeks and shallots, had a lower risk of stomach cancer than those who rarely consumed them (Trusted Source).
A study of 471 men showed that a higher intake of garlic was associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer (Trusted Source).
Another study found that participants who ate lots of garlic, as well as fruit, deep yellow vegetables, dark green vegetables and onions, were less likely to develop colorectal tumors. However, this study did not isolate the effects of garlic (Trusted Source).
Based on these findings, including 2–5 grams (approximately one clove) of fresh garlic into your diet per day can help you take advantage of its health-promoting properties.
13. Fatty FishSome research suggests that including a few servings of fish in your diet each week may reduce your risk of cancer.
One large study showed that a higher intake of fish was associated with a lower risk of digestive tract cancer (Trusted Source).
Another study that followed 478,040 adults found that eating more fish decreased the risk of developing colorectal cancer, while red and processed meats actually increased the risk (Trusted Source).
In particular, fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and anchovies contain important nutrients such as vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids that have been linked to a lower risk of cancer.
For example, having adequate levels of vitamin D is believed to protect against and reduce the risk of cancer (Trusted Source).
In addition, omega-3 fatty acids are thought to block the development of the disease (Trusted Source).
Aim for two servings of fatty fish per week to get a hearty dose of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, and to maximize the potential health benefits of these nutrients.
Still, more research is needed to determine how fatty fish consumption may directly influence the risk of cancer in humans.
Other Ways to Increase Effectiveness of An Anti-Cancer Diet
1. Lower Your Toxin Load
An anti-cancer diet consists of:
First and foremost, you can take these steps to reduce or eliminate the following products and substances from your life in order to halt toxin accumulation and reduce free radical, cellular damage:
You may also want to periodically try fasting to help with detoxification. Even if you eat healthy foods regularly, environmental toxins bombard you at all turns. The organs that are responsible for detoxification and elimination–the skin, respiratory system, kidney, liver and digestive tract–often get overburdened and re-circulate toxins in the bloodstream. Practicing a cleanse or detox every few months can help these organs “catch up” and dispose of toxins stored in cells and tissue. Colon and liver cleanses can be accomplished with a variety of herbs, green drinks and easily digested whole foods such as juiced vegetables or those that are lightly steamed.
2. Drink Clean Water
Our drinking (tap) water can contain hundreds of unregulated substances, from pesticides and heavy metals to hormones and other pollutants. Bottled water is even less regulated, which means it’s not necessarily a good alternative. Your best bet is buying a filter that can be used as home to remove chlorine, fluoride and other pollutants from the water you drink and cook with.
3. Cook Foods at Lower Temperatures and Avoid Burnt Food
I don’t eat much bread, but when I do eat an occasional sandwich or toast, I make sure it’s made with sprouted bread, such as Ezekiel bread. Additionally, I definitely avoid over-toasting or burning the bread! The Food Standards Agency says as a general rule of thumb, aim for a golden yellow color or lighter when toasting, roasting, frying or baking.
4. Avoid Processed Grains and Added Sugar
Our bodies make best use of food in its natural state, which is why added sugar or processed/refined grains are difficult to break down and can cause gut trouble. The more processed and altered that a food is, the more unnatural and harmful it becomes. Refined sugar, wheat flour, boxed pastas, frozen dinners, powdered cheese and heat-treated vegetable oils—these processed foods are at the heart of a whole host of diseases and disorders.
Wheat, soy and corn products are highly subsidized by the US government, making them very cheap and widely available for production of highly processed and refined products. Food allergies associated with these foods are subsequently on the rise and can contribute to leaky gut syndrome and improper nutrient absorption. These foods are also often loaded with pesticides, herbicides, GMOs and heavy metals. More and more, the seeds from which they are grown are genetically engineered. The solution? Buy organic, sprouted whole grains and avoid processed soy products.
Consumer Reports testing found that basmati rice grown in California contained the lowest levels of arsenic; all types of rice, except sushi and quick-cooking rice, from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas contained the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in a Consumer Reports testing. (R)
5. Get Enough Sunshine and Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that acts similarly to a hormone in our bodies. The best way to naturally obtain enough is through direct exposure to the sun, although eating certain vitamin D-rich foods like salmon and eggs can help, as can taking a high-quality supplement.
Clinical research shows that vitamin D can help prevent cancer best when you acquire about 50–70 nanograms per milliliter daily. (R) Cover your bases of vitamin D3 through getting 20 minutes of sun exposure every day, ideally between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. with 40 percent of your entire body exposed to the sun. You can also take an oral supplement containing around 5,000 to 10,000 IUs of D3 every day; I recommend an effective combination formula of astaxanthin and omega-3 fish oils with vitamin D3 taken together.
6. Boost Detoxification with SupplementsEating a healthy diet is number one when it comes to cancer prevention. But there are also certain herbs and supplements that have been shown to help lower inflammation, boost the immune system, and therefore help to decrease cancer risk. These include:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (Omega-3 fatty acid): Omega-3 fatty acids are getting so much attention because the Western diet is so unbalanced with an overabundance of omega-6’s. Omega-3’s have a host of health benefits and research is still underway to validate their benefits in combating cancer.
- Quercetin: Quercetin is from the flavonoid family of polyphenols and is found in some fruits and vegetables such as onions, broccoli, apples and berries, as well as in olive oil, grapes, and tea. Quercetin affects endothelial (thin membrane lining heart and blood vessels) cell proliferation, migration, and angiogenesis. As an anti-angiogenic compound, it has been shown to have a targeted effect on tumor angiogenesis in both in vitro and in vivo experiments. It has also been demonstrated in animal experiments that quercetin can reduce angiogenesis. A clinical trial based on quercetin as a dietary supplement to treat skin cancer is currently underway. Its results are expected to be announced in 2023.
- Chorella, Blue-green algae and Spirulina: These single-celled animals are a source of Vitamin B12 and bind with heavy metals, helping to eliminate them from the body.
- CLA: Conjugated linoleic acid boosts the immune system and may reduce the risk of developing colon, rectal and breast cancers. (R)
- Mushrooms: These disease fighting mushrooms have specific polysaccharides that boost the immune system, reduce tumor growth and combat cancer. (R)
- Folate/Vitamin B9: Folate (vitamin B9) is crucial to DNA production and has been found to be effective against breast, colorectal and pancreatic cancers.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate our sleep and waking cycles. This hormone’s levels are closely linked to immune system function. Getting at least 8 hours of sleep and reducing stress will boost your melatonin levels.
Key Takeaways on Cancer-Fighting Foods
- Cancer-causing foods, as opposed to cancer-fighting foods, include those that contain pesticides, additives, added sugar or artificial sweeteners, processed meats, burnt foods, fried foods and other chemicals. Examples of cancer-causing foods and ingredients are french fries, hot dogs, deli meats, sausage, ice cream, refined rice and other gains, high fructose corn syrup, processed vegetable oils, and trans-fats.
- To follow an anti-cancer diet, lower your toxin intake, get enough vitamin D and eat unprocessed nutrient-rich foods — in addition to cancer-fighting foods.
- Some of the top cancer-fighting foods include cruciferous veggies, leafy greens, berries, orange and yellow veggies, herbs and spices, cultured dairy products, nuts, seeds and healthy fats like coconut or olive oil.
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