Which foods to eat (and what to avoid)
While experts focus less on individual foods than on an overall pattern of healthy eating, some foods are clearly beneficial and others should be minimized. We summarize what research has found.
Full details of the evidence: How can Eating Well help me? What the research says › and other pages as linked. Also see Expert recommendations ›
Eat and drink more of these foods
Vegetables and fruits
Many vegetables and fruits are linked to lower risk of cancer or better survival and other outcomes.
Cruciferous vegetables: cauliflower, broccoli, kale, collards, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choi, and others
- Body terrainthe internal conditions of your body, including nutritional status, fitness, blood sugar balance, hormone balance, inflammation and more connection: promote a healthy gut microbiome
- Cancer connection: linked to less cancer progression (prostate) and lower risk of recurrence (breast)
- Nutrient highlights: source of fiber, plant lignans and other nutrients linked to lower cancer risk (breast and colorectal in women, and lung) and better survival (breast)
Orange, red, or deep yellow vegetables and fruits such as carrots, squash, mango, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes and tomatoes
- Body terrain connection: better blood sugar and insulin balance and a good source of anti-inflammatory carotenoids
- Cancer connection: lower risk of cancer (prostate, head and neck) and better survival (metastatic breast)
Chili peppers containing capsaicin
- Cancer connection: lower cancer mortality with regular consumption
- Nutrient highlights: a source of plant lignans linked to lower cancer risk (breast and colorectal in women, and lung) and better survival (breast)
- Body terrain connection: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and promote balance in bleeding and coagulation
- Nutrient highlights: a good source of plant lignans and other phytoestrogens
- Cancer connection: plant lignans and other phytoestrogens are linked to lower cancer risk (breast and colorectal in women, and lung) and better survival (breast)
Pomegranate juice or extract
- Cancer connection: longer PSA doubling time (prostate cancer)
Alliums—garlic, onions, shallots, scallions and leeks
- Body terrain connection: anti-inflammatory and antioxidant
Legumes such as dried beans, lentils, split peas and chickpeas
Nutrient highlights: a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals
Body terrain connection:
- Better blood glucose and insulin levels
Cancer connection: lower risk of cancer (prostate)
Cancer connection: better survival and lower risk of recurrence among people eating soy foods (breast cancer)
- Nutrient highlights: a good source of of protein, healthy fat, fiber, and inositol hexaphosphate, linked to better blood glucose and insulin levels
- Body terrain connection: anti-inflammatory
- Cancer connection: lower risk of cancer and recurrence, and better survival (colorectal)
Animal proteins with higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratios, such as wild-caught salmon, mackerel, or sardines and high omega-3 eggs
- Body terrain connection: anti-inflammatory
- Cancer connection: lower cancer risk (colorectal) and better survival (head and neck, ovarian)
- Caution: higher risk of cancer or recurrence with eggs (prostate)
Nutrient highlights: a good source of fiber, B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate), minerals (iron, magnesium and selenium), and plant lignans
Body terrain connection: promote a healthy microbiome, relatively low glycemic index
- Better survival (head and neck) and lower risk of cancer (colorectal) or recurrence (breast)
- Fiber is linked to better survival (postmenopausal breast, ovarian)
- Plant lignans are linked to lower cancer risk (breast and colorectal in women, and lung) and better survival (postmenopausal breast)
Side effect connection: fewer gastrointestinal symptoms, especially constipation
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) can be either omega-3s or omega-6s. Both promote health, but aim for a higher proportion of omega-3s to omega-6s.
Health-promoting fats: olive oil, nut oils, and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids
- Body terrain connection: anti-inflammatory
- Cancer connection: lower risk of cancer (colorectal and other digestive cancers, breast, skin, and overall cancer)
- Side effect connection: better sleep quality and less fatigue
Omega-6 fatty acids in safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, and sunflower seeds
- Nutrient highlights: a better choice than saturated fats from animals, such as butter or lard
- Caution: slightly higher risk of cancer at higher levels (skin cancer)
- Caution: hydrogenated PUFAs (trans-fats) are not a healthy choice (see below)
While some varieties of medicinal mushrooms are not considered edible, maitake and shiitake are.
- Very low in fat
- A source of fiber and vitamin D ›
Body terrain connection: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, promote immune function
Cancer connection: lower cancer risk (cancer as a whole and breast)
Probiotic yogurt (unsweetened and with live cultures), kefir, tempeh, natto, kombucha, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, cultured cheese, and more
- Body terrain connection: anti-inflammatory, promote a healthy microbiome
- Cancer connection: lower risk of many types of cancer
- Caution: higher risk of ER-negative tumors with higher levels of yogurt and cottage/ricotta cheese
- Body terrain connection: promotes digestion, hormone balance, immune system function, inflammation and other body terrain factors, necessary to flush out toxic substances
- Side effect connection: avoid unpleasant and even dangerous symptoms of dehydration that may even lead to treatment delays, and lower treatment side effects, such as nausea, weakness, constipation, and fatigue
- Cancer Treatment Centers of America: How to stay hydrated during cancer treatment ›
- Body terrain connection: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant
- Cancer connection: improved survival and enhanced chemotherapy effects, lower risk of several types of cancer
- Caution: higher risk of pancreatic cancer with higher consumption
- Caution: avoid caffeine if you’re at risk of dehydration or anxiety
- Cancer connection: better survival and outcomes (breast), lower cancer risk (overall and colorectal)
- Caution: irritating to the esophagus, avoid if you’re at risk of esophagitisinflammation of the esophagus from chemotherapy or radiation treatment to the chest
- Caution: avoid caffeine if you’re at risk of or experiencing dehydration or anxiety
Eat and drink less of these foods
Saturated fats found in butter, ghee, suet, lard, coconut oil, and palm oil, plus fatty cuts of meat, sausages, bacon, cured meats like salami, chorizo and pancetta, and cheese
- Cancer connection: higher risk of cancer mortality
Trans-fatty acids found in most shortening, fried food, margarine, microwave popcorn, and many baked goods, although some manufacturers have reduced trans-fats in recent years; check labels and avoid foods containing partially hydrogenated oils or listing trans-fats in the nutrient label
- Cancer connection: higher risk of prostate, colorectal and postmenopausal breast cancer
Less healthy proteins
- Nutrient concerns: a source of substances linked to increased cancer risk, such as heme1Fiorito V, Chiabrando D, Petrillo S, Bertino F, Tolosano E. The multifaceted role of heme in cancer. Frontiers in Oncology. 2020 Jan 15;9:1540. and sialic acid N-glycolylneuraminic acid2Samraj AN, Pearce OM et al. A red meat-derived glycan promotes inflammation and cancer progression. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A. 2015 Jan 13;112(2):542-7.
- Body terrain connection: promotes inflammation
- Cancer connection: higher risk of cancer (colorectal, esophageal, prostate); classified as a Group 2A carcinogen (probably carcinogenic to humans) by the World Health Organization
Processed meats: cured meats such as bacon or deli meats, hot dogs, salted meats, or smoked meats
- Nutrient concerns: a source of nitrites and/or nitrates, which are listed as probable carcinogens
- Cancer connection: higher risk of cancer (colorectal, stomach, esophageal, and prostate); classified as a Group 2A carcinogen (probably carcinogenic to humans) by the World Health Organization
Sugars and refined grains
Refined sugar or grain products such as white bread, pasta, cakes and cookies; sweetened drinks; honey; fruit drinks; white potatoes and white rice
- Nutrient concerns: high in simple carbohydrates linked to risks of diabetes and metabolic syndrome and low in fiber
- Body terrain connection: promotes inflammation, worse blood sugar and insulin levels
- Cancer connection: worse survival (ovarian), promotes growth of some types of cancer cells
Drink in moderation or not at all.
- Cancer connection: higher risk of several types of cancers
- Side effect connection: higher risk of dehydration
Beverages containing caffeine
- Cancer connection: higher risk of cancer (esophageal)
- Side effect connection: increased symptoms of anxiety and stress, higher risk of sleep disruption, higher risk of dehydration
Cook to reduce toxic chemicals
Some food preparation methods are better than others when it comes to risk of cancer.
Cook meat slowly at lower temperatures
High-heat cooking of meat can create carcinogens, such as heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).3Rock CL, Thomson C et al. American Cancer Society guideline for diet and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2020;10.3322/caac.21591. When muscle meat—including beef, pork, fish, or poultry—is cooked by pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame, these chemicals can form. Smoking meat or fish also creates PAHs that cling to the food.4National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. July 11, 2017. Viewed April 4, 2018.
- Marinate meat
- Precook larger cuts
- Use lean cuts
- Cut meat into smaller portions and mix with vegetables
See this healing practice for more about the effects of these chemicals on your health and their connection to cancer.
Bake, grill or broil only to a golden brown
When vegetables containing the amino acid asparagine are heated to high temperatures in the presence of certain sugars, a harmful chemical called acrylamide is produced. “The major food sources of acrylamide are French fries and potato chips; crackers, bread, and cookies; breakfast cereals; canned black olives; prune juice; and coffee.”7National Cancer Institute. Acrylamide and Cancer Risk. December 5, 2017. Viewed January 27, 2022. However, the National Cancer Institute notes that most people are exposed to substantially more acrylamide from tobacco smoke than from food.
To reduce your food exposure to acrylamide, use the “Golden Rule”: When grilling, baking or broiling, cook the food to no more than light golden color, while also being mindful of safety. Meats, including poultry and fish, plus eggs need to achieve specific temperatures for safe eating.
Diet as an alternative approach to cancer treatment or risk
Diet is one of the most frequent practices people seek as a complement or alternative to conventional treatments. Anticancer diets come and go over the years, many inciting what we call “diet wars”—attacks and defenses of various approaches. Many of the diets have become casualties, lacking evidence of effect or with evidence of no effect or even harm. Some diets are one part of an alternative therapy regimen that may also include coffee enemas and a host of nutritional supplements, as well as other components.
Dozens or even hundreds of diets are available, promising outcomes that may include weight loss, muscle gain, greater energy, detoxification, philosophical or spiritual purity, disease prevention, and even cure. Information, misinformation and bad advice about diet and cancer are all around us, and you—the person with cancer—are caught in the crossfire. To help you sort this out, we summarize many of the more popular diets in our reviews of diets and metabolic therapies.
Mediterranean diet: closely aligned with the diets that experts recommend, this approach focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumesa class of vegetables that includes beans, peas, and lentils, and olive oil.
Ketogenic diet: By altering the metabolism of cancer cells, this diet is used to treat certain types of cancer that often don’t respond to other therapies, such as brain cancers. It is not considered a cancer-preventive diet.
- Alkaline diet: The American Institute for Cancer Research has concluded that the acidity or alkalinity of foods is not important, but some oncologists find that acidosis is associated with impaired immunity, reduced glutathione and reduced insulin sensitivity—all body terrain factors connected to cancer. The alkalinity of foods can contribute to acidosis: “A diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in animal protein and sodium chloride [salt] reduces acid load.”8Pizzorno J. Acidosis: an old idea validated by new research. Integrative Medicine (Encinitas). 2015 Feb;14(1):8-12.
- Gerson diet: A 2014 review of evidence regarding this approach as an adjuvant to other cancer therapies or as a cure did not find convincing evidence of benefit.
- Gonzalez diet: A small study of people with pancreatic cancer (typically with very poor survival) found substantially longer survival on this diet, although this finding was not repeated in a much larger study with some serious design flaws.
- Intermittent fasting: Regularly restricting or eliminating food for spans of several hours or longer can lower insulin resistance, improve your response to chemotherapy, reduce some side effects of cancer treatments and may reduce your risk of recurrence.
- Living foods diet (raw foods diet): A 2014 review did not find clinical evidence supporting its use in cancer patients.
- Macrobiotic diet: This approach based on a traditional Japanese diet has been supported by a few reports of people claiming remarkable reversal of their cancer, but evidence to date does not support the use of this diet for cancer risk reduction, survival or quality of life.
- Paleolithic (Paleo) diet: Higher adherence with this diet is associated with lower mortality either from cancer or from all causes and with lower risk of colorectal adenomas.
- Vegan diet: A meta-analysis found an estimated 15% reduced incidence of total cancer from following a vegan diet.
While most of the diets we review show at least some benefit regarding cancer, some may also involve some risk to you, including insufficient nutrients and the elimination of food groups proven to be beneficial for reducing cancer risk and promoting general health.9Zick SM, Snyder D, Abrams DI. Pros and cons of dietary strategies popular among cancer patients. Oncology (Williston Park). 2018 Nov 15;32(11):542-7.
|1||Fiorito V, Chiabrando D, Petrillo S, Bertino F, Tolosano E. The multifaceted role of heme in cancer. Frontiers in Oncology. 2020 Jan 15;9:1540.|
|2||Samraj AN, Pearce OM et al. A red meat-derived glycan promotes inflammation and cancer progression. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A. 2015 Jan 13;112(2):542-7.|
|3||Rock CL, Thomson C et al. American Cancer Society guideline for diet and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2020;10.3322/caac.21591.|
|4||National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. July 11, 2017. Viewed April 4, 2018.|
|5||Science of Cooking. Science of Slow Cooking. Viewed January 27, 2022.|
|6||American Institute for Cancer Research. Guide to Healthy Grilling. May 1, 2014. Viewed January 27, 2022.|
|7||National Cancer Institute. Acrylamide and Cancer Risk. December 5, 2017. Viewed January 27, 2022.|
|8||Pizzorno J. Acidosis: an old idea validated by new research. Integrative Medicine (Encinitas). 2015 Feb;14(1):8-12.|
|9||Zick SM, Snyder D, Abrams DI. Pros and cons of dietary strategies popular among cancer patients. Oncology (Williston Park). 2018 Nov 15;32(11):542-7.|