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Diet and Cancer

By

Robert Peter Gale

, MD, PhD, Imperial College London

Last full review/revision Jul 2018| Content last modified Aug 2018
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Many studies have tried to determine whether specific foods increase or decrease a person's risk of getting cancer. Unfortunately, different studies have had conflicting results, so it is hard to know what effect foods or dietary supplements have on cancer risk. A common problem is that when studies find that people who eat more of a certain food seem to have lower rates of a certain cancer, it can be difficult to tell whether those people also were different in terms of other risk factors (such as where they live, how much they smoke and drink, and so forth). Often, when doctors do a controlled trial (see also The Science of Medicine) and randomly give some people a seemingly helpful food or supplement, the studies do not show a beneficial effect. Some foods and supplements have been studied more than others, and many studies are ongoing.

Alcohol

Alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast, and the colon and rectum. People who smoke as well as drink have a much higher risk of these cancers. Although some studies have shown that moderate intake of alcohol, especially wine, decreases the risk of heart disease, this potential benefit must be weighed against the potential risks of alcohol.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E and beta-carotene ( vitamin A), are part of a well-balanced diet. However, studies have not shown that taking supplements containing these antioxidants decreases the risk of cancer. There is some evidence that taking high doses of beta-carotene or vitamin E supplements may actually increase the risk of certain types of cancer.

Artificial sweeteners

Although some early studies show an increased risk of bladder cancer, brain cancer, and lymphomas with certain sweeteners, these studies were done in animals. No studies in humans show an increased risk of cancer with the use of these sweeteners.

Bioengineered foods (genetically modified [GMO] foods)

Genes from different plants or from certain microorganisms are added to the genes of some plants to increase the plants’ hardiness or resistance to pests or to improve them in some other way. No current evidence demonstrates that bioengineered foods have any effect on cancer risk.

Calcium

Some studies have found that higher vitamin D levels and calcium supplements may reduce the risk of precancerous polyps of the colon. However, other studies suggest that a high calcium intake increases the risk of prostate cancer.

Coffee

Although some older studies appeared to show a link between coffee consumption and cancer risk, more recent studies have not shown any connection.

Fiber

Some studies suggest that eating a diet that is high in fiber reduces the risk of cancer, especially colorectal cancer.

Fish and omega-3 fatty acids

Some recent studies in animals suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may stop cancers from growing or slow their growth. However, these findings have not been replicated in humans.

Fluoride

Studies have not shown an increased risk of cancer in people who drink fluoridated water or who use toothpastes or undergo dental fluoride treatments.

Folate

In some older studies, folate (folic acid) was found to help protect against colon cancer and breast cancer. However, more recent studies have found that folic acid supplements may actually increase the risk of prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, and possibly breast cancer. Most people get sufficient folate in their diets and do not need to take supplements.

Food additives

Food additives must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration before they are included in foods, so new additives undergo extensive testing. So far, no evidence shows that the levels of additives found in food products increase the risk of cancer.

Garlic

Scientific studies have not shown that garlic is effective in reducing the risk of cancer.

Irradiated foods

Radiation of food, which is sometimes used to kill microorganisms in food, does not appear to increase cancer risk.

Lycopene

Some studies suggest that lycopene, which is found mainly in tomatoes, may reduce the risk of some cancers, but the evidence is very weak.

Meats cooked at high temperatures

Eating meat cooked at high temperatures, for example by grilling or broiling, may introduce cancer-causing chemicals and increase cancer risk.

Organic food

There is no evidence that organically grown foods reduce cancer risk more than the same foods grown by other methods.

Overeating

Being obese or overweight increases the risk of breast cancer in women after menopause. Obesity also increases the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, and pancreas. It may increase the risk of other cancers as well.

Pesticides

There is no evidence that pesticide residue found in small amounts on foods increases the risk of cancer.

Processed meats

People who eat large amounts of processed meats may be at risk for stomach and colon and rectal cancers. Some investigators attribute this finding to nitrates, which are in luncheon meats, hams, and hot dogs. This connection is unproved. Eating meats processed by salting or smoking may increase exposure to potential cancer-causing substances.

Salt

Diets containing large amounts of food that has been preserved by pickling or salting may increase the risk of stomach and throat cancer. No studies have found a similar risk for a small or moderate amount of salt for flavor.

Saturated fats

Some studies have found higher rates of some types of cancers in countries where fat intake is higher. However, no studies have found that decreasing fat intake decreases the risk of cancer. Of more importance, however, is that foods that contain high levels of saturated fats also contain many calories and may contribute to obesity, which is a risk factor for cancer and other health problems.

Selenium

Although earlier studies suggested some benefit, more recent studies failed to show that selenium protects against cancer.

Soy

Studies do not yet show that soy supplements reduce cancer risk. However, there is evidence that eating foods that contain soy, such as tofu, decreases the risk of cancers of the breast, endometrium, and prostate.

Spices

Several spices, including tumeric, capsaicin (red pepper), cumin, and curry, are being studied to see whether they reduce risk of cancer. However, no studies have yet found a link between these spices and cancer risk.

Tea

Tea has not been shown to reduce cancer risk.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D may have some benefit in reducing the risk of prostate cancer and colorectal cancer.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E supplements do not appear to protect against cancer and may increase the risk of prostate cancer.

Additional information

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