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

Blueberries

  • 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

Flaxseed

  • 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

Healthy proteins

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
  • Antioxidant

Cancer connection: lower risk of cancer (prostate)

Soy foods

Cancer connection: better survival and lower risk of recurrence among people eating soy foods (breast cancer)

Nuts

  • 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)

Whole grains

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

Cancer connection:

  • 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

Healthy fats

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)

Mushrooms

While some varieties of medicinal mushrooms are not considered edible, maitake and shiitake are.

Nutrient highlights:

Body terrain connection: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, promote immune function

Cancer connection: lower cancer risk (cancer as a whole and breast)

Fermented foods

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

Beverages

Water

  • 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 ›

Green tea

  • 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

Coffee

  • 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
Chef and CancerChoices Senior Clinical Consultant Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, talks about eating well to make your body less hospitable to cancer, principles of healthy food selection, and more.

Eat and drink less of these foods

Unhealthy fats

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

Red meat

  • 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

Beverages

Drink in moderation or not at all.

Alcohol

  • 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.

Cooking with lower-temperature methods such as these reduces the formation of these harmful chemicals:5Science of Cooking. Science of Slow Cooking. Viewed January 27, 2022.

  • Steaming
  • Braising
  • Poaching
  • Stewing
  • Roasting

If you grill meat, these techniques can reduce the formation of harmful chemicals:6American Institute for Cancer Research. Guide to Healthy Grilling. May 1, 2014. Viewed January 27, 2022.

  • 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.

Other diets:

  • 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.

Resource

Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health

Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been selecting plants that are high in starch and sugar and low in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. This book guides you in choosing modern varieties that approach the nutritional content of wild plants but that also please the modern palate.

Eating on the Wild Side

Keep reading

Authors

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS

Senior Clinical Consultant
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Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant

Nancy Hepp, MS

Lead Researcher and Program Manager
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Ms. Hepp is a researcher and communicator who has been writing and editing educational content on varied health topics for more than 20 years. She serves as lead researcher, program manager, and writer for CancerChoices. Her graduate work in research and cognitive psychology, her master’s degree in instructional design, and her certificate in web design have all guided her in writing and presenting information for a wide variety of audiences and uses. Nancy’s service as faculty development coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Wright State University also provided experience in medical research, plus insights into medical education and medical care from the professional’s perspective.

Nancy Hepp, MS Lead Researcher and Program Manager

Reviewers

Rebecca Katz

Expert on the role of food in supporting health for the chronically ill and CancerChoices advisor
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Rebecca Katz, MS, is a nationally recognized expert on the role of food in supporting health for the chronically ill. With a master of science in health and nutrition education, Ms. Katz is founder of the Healing Kitchens Institute and has been a visiting chef and nutrition educator at the Commonweal Cancer Help Program for more than a decade.

Rebecca Katz Expert on the role of food in supporting health for the chronically ill and CancerChoices advisor

Whitney You, MD, MPH

Research Consultant
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Dr. You is a physician specializing in maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) with a specific interest in cancer in the context of pregnancy. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in health services research with a focus in health literacy and received a Master of Public Health.

Whitney You, MD, MPH Research Consultant

Miki Scheidel

Co-Founder and Creative Director
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Miki Scheidel is Co-founder and creative director of CancerChoices. She led the effort to transform Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies, the prior version of CancerChoices, to its current form. Miki and her family were deeply affected by her father’s transformative experience with integrative approaches to metastatic kidney cancer. That experience inspires her work as president of the Scheidel Foundation and as volunteer staff at CancerChoices. She previously worked with the US Agency for International Development and Family Health International among other roles. She received her graduate degree in international development from Georgetown University, a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from George Mason University, and a Bachelor of Arts from Gettysburg College.

Miki Scheidel Co-Founder and Creative Director

Last update: July 6, 2022

CancerChoices provides information about integrative in cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan cancer care. We review complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocial therapy, and acupuncture therapies and self-care lifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices to help patients and professionals explore and integrate the best combination of conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy and complementary therapies and practices for each person.

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