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Cancer and nutrition, what’s the link?

Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of cancer in Australia, with an estimated 6.1 per cent of cancer diagnoses in 2010 linked to dietary factors. While an overall healthy diet is recommended, research has been able to reveal specific dietary components linked to the risk of developing cancer. This page will take you through which foods to eat, and which to avoid, to reduce your cancer risk.

What foods increase/ decrease the risk of cancer?

While there is still more to learn, extensive research has been conducted to determine the link between diet and cancer. Strong evidence has been found for the following foods and drinks:

Foods and drinks that reduce your risk of cancer:

  • Foods rich in dietary fibre, particularly wholegrains, may decrease the risk of bowel cancer. Other foods high in dietary fibre include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. Find out more.
  • Dairy foods, including milk, cheese and yoghurt, have been linked to a reduced risk of bowel cancer. Find out more.
  • Drinking coffee may decrease the risk of liver and endometrial cancer. Find out more.

Foods and drinks that increase your risk of cancer:

  • Processed meats, including bacon, ham and salami, increase the risk of bowel cancer. Find out more.
  • High intakes of red meat (over 500 g per week) have been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. Find out more.
  • Alcoholic drinks increase the risk of 7 types of cancer. Alcohol is also high in kilojoules, which can contribute to weight gain and excess body fat, increasing the risk of 13 types of cancer. Find out more.
  • Junk foods and sugary drinks contain a lot of kilojoules while being low in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. Having too many of these foods can lead to overweight and obesity, which is a risk factor for 13 types of cancer. Junk foods also take the place of healthier foods that help reduce your cancer risk. Find out more about the evidence linking junk food and sugary drinks to weight gain.
  • Drinking scalding hot beverages (above 65°C) may increase the risk of oesophageal cancer. Find out more.

Help to reduce your risk of cancer

The environments we live in have an immense impact on our eating behaviours, such as:

  • Access to affordable and healthy food
  • Fast-food outlet developments targeting schools and residents in disadvantaged areas
  • Pervasive marketing and promotion of junk food in the spaces where we eat, learn, work and play

Cancer Council WA is working behind the scenes to advocate for environments that support eating well.

Eating well for cancer prevention will look different for different people. Go for a wide variety of healthy foods that you enjoy and fit in with your lifestyle, budget, and cultural and health needs. Additional tips for a healthy diet include:

Eating plenty of plant foods

This includes vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds. These foods are packed with fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Wholegrain foods include wholemeal and mixed grain breads and cereals, rolled oats, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, popcorn, grainy crackers, wholemeal pasta and brown rice. Legumes (also known as pulses) include peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas.

Find delicious plant-based recipes.

Learn how to get more high-fibre plant foods into your day.

Have only moderate amounts of red meat and limit processed meats

If you eat red meat, limit how much you have to less than 500 g (cooked weight) each week. This is about three portions per week, although it will depend on the serving size you usually have. Have only small amounts of processed and cured meats (such as ham, bacon, chorizo, salami) or avoid these foods altogether. Chicken, seafood, eggs, nuts, tofu and legumes are good alternatives.

Get inspired with these tasty chicken, seafood, egg and legume recipes.

Cut down on junk foods and sugary drinks

This includes foods like fast food burgers, takeaway pizza, cakes, crisps, hot chips, café style muffins, chocolate, lollies, pastries and pies. Sugary drinks include soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, slushies, flavoured milk and cordial.

Take steps to reduce the junk with these practical tips and resources.

Learn how much sugar is in different drinks.

Drink less alcohol

Go for lower alcohol drinks, cut back or skip alcohol altogether.

Despite the clever marketing spin, all types of alcohol, including red wine, organic cider and low-carb beer, are damaging to our health. The best action you can take to reduce your risk of alcohol-caused harm, including cancer, is to reduce how much you drink.

Check out these tips to help you reduce how much alcohol you drink.

Try these refreshing alcohol alternatives.

What about supplements?

Unless your doctor or dietitian has recommended you take a supplement, aim to get your nutrients from food rather than supplements. Whole foods deliver your body with a package of nutrients that act together to support good health.

Some vitamins and minerals can also be harmful in large doses. It is hard to overdose on these vitamins and minerals in food, but it is possible to have too much as part of a supplement.

If you have a cancer diagnosis

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, eating well can benefit you before, during and after treatment. You may have additional nutrition concerns or challenges related to eating. For more information and support, visit Cancer Council’s nutrition and cancer hub.

Eating well, along with being physically active, can help reduce the risk of the cancer coming back (recurrence) for some cancer types. Cancer Council WA’s Wellbeing after Cancer program is designed to help you do just that.

Learn more about nutrition and cancer