Is Cancer Linked to Your Diet?

By the time we reach our 85th birthday, one in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer. Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for an estimated 9.6 million deaths in 2018. The statistics may make grim reading, but the fact is that the choices we make in life – including what we eat – can prevent at least one in three cancers.

Thanks to the success of public health messages, we know that the dangers of smoking and excess sun exposure and how they increase our risk of lung and skin cancer. But what you put on your plate should be on that list too, as cancer experts become more aware of the important role diet plays in cancer.

Some foods have hit the headlines because of their anti-cancer properties – among the better-known ones are broccoli, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables. Healthy as these foods are, it’s unlikely that there are ‘magic bullet’ specific foods or nutrients that in themselves cause or protect against cancer, says Dr Kate Allen, World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) International’s Executive Director of Science & Public Affairs.

“Rather, different patterns of diet and physical activity combine to create a metabolic state that makes you more or less susceptible to cancer,” she says.

In 2018 the WCRF published the landmark report Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective, the result of an ongoing review of decades of evidence by independent experts from across the globe.

According to Dr Allen, these are the key messages we need to take from that report.

1. Avoid the gradual weight gain through healthy eating and exercise.

There are at least 12 cancers linked to excess weight, including liver, breast, prostate and kidney cancer.

2. Eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and beans. The dietary patterns consistently linked to lower rates of cancer are high in these foods, says Dr Allen.

3. Limit consumptions of ‘fast foods’, red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened drinks and alcohol. Fast food and sugar-sweetened drinks fuel overweight and obesity, red and processed meats are linked with colorectal cancer and alcohol is a cause of six different types of cancer.

4. Do not rely on supplements for cancer prevention. Aim instead to get everything you need from your diet, advises Dr Allen.