A healthy diet can reduce your risk of cancer

The Bottom Line

  • Eating lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce your chance of getting cancer. Aim for at least five servings a day.

  • Fibre can also decrease cancer risk, especially colorectal cancer.

  • Red and processed meat can increase your risk of cancer - eat these sparingly.

We all know we should eat our veggies, but did you know that doing so could actually cut your risk of developing cancer? Along with promoting health and well-being, and helping to control body weight, eating a healthy diet can actually lower your chances of developing cancer as you age (1).

Maybe you're already eating balanced, nutritious meals and snacks most of the time. But if your diet can benefit from a bit of a makeover, the good news is it isn't too late - and it really isn't too difficult - to make some important changes. In fact, cancer-fighting benefits can be realized from just two simple steps:

1. Eat more:

Vegetables and fruits

The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that increasing vegetable and fruit intake could reduce your risk of cancer by 5-12% (1). Vegetables and fruits contain bioactive compounds, ingredients that have an effect on human tissues and cells. These compounds may play a role in reducing the risk of cancer in humans, particularly cancers of the mouth, esophagus, lung, and stomach (2). This research has led trusted organizations, like the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Cancer Society, to recommend at least five servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruits every day (2-4).


Fibre is also important for more than just keeping things regular: it helps keep cancer at bay! Fibre intake is particularly important for reducing colorectal cancer risk (3). For every 10 grams of fibre eaten each day, the risk of colorectal cancer decreases by 12% in men and 8% in women (5).

Happily, there are lots of tasty options for getting your fibre: for instance one medium pear contains about 5.5 grams of fibre, and half a cup of bran cereal contains 4.6 grams. More information about how to increase the fibre in your diet can be found here.

2. Eat less:

Red and processed meats

More recently, red meat (such as beef, pork and lamb) and processed meats (those with added preservatives, or that have been smoked, cured or salted such as ham, bacon, hot dogs and salamis) have been found to increase colorectal cancer risk. A review of research studies found that eating 100 grams of red meat or 50 grams of processed meat per day increases one's risk of bowel cancer by 20-34% and 23-45% respectively (6;7).

When it comes to eating for optimal health and wellness, there is an overwhelming amount of information and advice - much of it contradictory, suspect and just plain weird! It's easy to become confused and discouraged. But the evidence-based recommendations outlined above are straight-forward, easy to follow and most of all, can potentially keep you cancer free.

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Author Details


  1. International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Handbooks of Cancer Prevention: Fruit and vegetables. Lyon (FR): IARCPress; 2003. Available from: http://publications.iarc.fr/Book-And-Report-Series/Iarc-Handbooks-Of-Cancer-Prevention/Fruit-And-Vegetables-2003

  2. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: a global perspective. Washington (DC): AICR; 2007. 537 p. Available from: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/4841/1/4841.pdf

  3. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Diet, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: A global perspective. Continuous update project expert report 2018. Available from https://www.wcrf.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Summary-of-Third-Expert-Report-2018.pdf

  4. Kushi LH, Doyle C, McCullough M, et al. American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA Cancer J Clin. 2012; 62(1):30-67. doi: 10.3322/caac.20140.

  5. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Resarch. Continuous update report: Food, nutrition, physical activity and the prevention of colorectal cancer. Washington (DC): AICR; 2011.

  6. Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton KZ, et al. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Lancet Oncol. 2015 ; 16(16):1599-600. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(15)00444-1.

  7. Chan DS, Lau R, Aune D, et al. Red and processed meat and colorectal cancer incidence: Meta-analysis of prospective studies. PLos One. 2011; 6(6):e20456. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020456. 

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.