Can a Good Diet Help You Prevent Cancer?

Can Eating Better Reduce Your Cancer Risk
Can Eating Better Reduce Your Cancer Risk

We all strive to maximize our own health and happiness, and part of that means practicing good habits to minimize our risk of illness and death. One of the most common causes of death in the developed world is cancer, which comes in many different forms and is hard to pin down as a singular disease.

For decades, scientists and researchers have worked tirelessly to figure out the root causes of these types of cancer, and evaluate different strategies for preventing cancer. Eating healthier can help you prevent all kinds of health ailments, from heart disease to diabetes, but can it also help you prevent cancer?

The Quick Answer: Yes and No

The quick answer is “yes and no.”

Certain types of cancer, like mesothelioma, typically emerge in response to exposure to certain types of hazards. In the case of mesothelioma, this hazard is asbestos; this type of cancer almost exclusively develops as a result of asbestos exposure, so eating a healthier diet isn’t necessarily going to prevent it from manifesting.

There is significant research to suggest that healthier eating patterns reduce the risk of many types of cancer, but it’s unclear exactly what this risk reduction is. If you have a genetic predisposition to a certain type of cancer, eating healthier may not do anything meaningful for you. But at the same time, if you engage in a variety of cancer prevention strategies, and you already have a naturally low risk for certain types of cancer, you may be able to reduce your risk for those cancers to almost zero.

How Diet Affects Cancer Risk

How exactly does your eating affect your risk of cancer?

  • Obesity and cancer risk. Obesity increases the risks of certain types of cancer. And we know that obesity is usually a byproduct of unhealthy eating patterns. If you consume more calories than you expend on a daily basis, your body converts the excess calories to fat. And if you eat certain types of unhealthy foods, like those high in processed sugars or unhealthy fats, you’ll be more likely to overeat.
  • Fiber and water intake. Eating foods that are high in fiber, like green vegetables and whole grains, and drinking lots of water can facilitate a healthier digestive system. This can lower the risk of a multitude of cancers that could otherwise affect your digestive system.
  • Antioxidants and free radicals. Some types of foods contain materials known as antioxidants – especially fruits and vegetables. In your body, harmful elements known as free radicals can cause damage to your cells, ultimately increasing your risk of cancer. Antioxidants work to eliminate free radicals in your body, potentially lowering your cancer risk in the process.
  • Carcinogenic substances. Certain foods and substances are known to be carcinogenic or correlated with higher cancer risk. For example, consuming high quantities of alcohol or tobacco products can increase your risk of various types of cancer. Excessive consumption of red meats can also increase your risk of colorectal cancer.

What Else Affects Cancer Risk?

If your diet only has a marginal effect on your cancer risk, what else can increase or decrease your risk of cancer?

These are some of the other most significant cancer risk factors, many of which are beyond your control.

  • Age. As you get older, your risk of cancer increases. This is a natural tendency for a few different reasons. Perhaps most notably, your cells divide constantly throughout your life, and as you get older, the number of cell divisions increases. With each division comes a risk of mutation, so statistical probability indicates that if you live long enough, cancer is practically inevitable.
  • Genetics/family history. If you have a family history of cancer, you’ll be more likely to develop cancer yourself. There’s a strong genetic component to developing many types of cancer.
  • Tobacco use. If you use tobacco products, like cigarettes or chewing tobacco, you’ll be much more likely to develop cancer.
  • Unprotected UV exposure. Sunlight is good for us, but it’s important to use sunscreen and adopt other forms of protection to minimize the impact of UV radiation. Excessive UV exposure can lead to skin cancer.
  • Exposure to certain substances and chemicals. Being exposed to carcinogenic chemicals or substances can also make cancer more likely; for example, asbestos exposure often leads to mesothelioma.

General Strategies for Reducing Cancer Risks

If you’re looking for general strategies to reduce your cancer risk through your eating, these are some of the most important:

  • Be mindful of what you eat. Increase your knowledge of nutrition and be mindful of what you eat. Pay attention to ingredient labels and nutritional content, so you can be a more educated consumer and avoid foods that aren’t good for you.
  • Follow the advice of your primary care doctor. Every person is different, so nutritional advice is hard to dispense universally. When in doubt, you should always follow the advice of your primary care doctor.
  • Strive for balance. Most people benefit from a balanced diet, which is one that depends on a wide variety of food sources, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains.
  • Stay lean. Adopt a healthy eating pattern that allows you to stay relatively lean. Avoid eating foods that are high in sugar, foods that are high in unhealthy fats, and portion sizes that force you to exceed your allotted daily calorie intake.
  • Exercise regularly. While not technically part of your diet, healthy eating and exercise are often grouped together – and even mild physical activity can reduce your risk of various types of cancer. Additionally, exercise helps you burn calories, lowering your risk of obesity. Strive to get at least 20 minutes of exercise every day; even a brisk walk can be helpful.

There’s no way to reduce your cancer risk to zero, and if you’re already genetically predisposed to a certain type of cancer, eating better may not be enough to counteract that risk. Still, almost everyone can benefit from eating healthier, and because many of these strategies are easy to follow, there’s no reason not to pursue them.

I'm NOT a doctor! I'm just passionate about health and healthy leaving. The information on this website, such as graphics, images, text and all other materials, is provided for reference and educational purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. The content is not intended to be complete or exhaustive or to apply to any specific individual's medical condition.