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. In general, aim to eat foods high in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients but lower in calories. 

Some nutrients found in many foods show benefit for cancer risk or survival. Fiber is linked to better survival (postmenopausal breast, ovarian) and lower risk of colorectal cancer. Plant lignans are linked to lower cancer risk (breast and colorectal in women, and lung) and better survival (postmenopausal breast cancer). Many nutrients are linked to better body terrainthe internal conditions of your body, including nutritional status, fitness, blood sugar balance, hormone balance, inflammation, and more.

Full details of the evidence: How can Eating Well help you? What the research says › and other pages as linked. Also see Expert recommendations › and Optimizing Your Body Terrain ›

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

vegetables and fruits as part of a health-promoting diet

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)

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 connections:

  • Linked to less cancer progression (prostate)
  • Linked to lower risk of recurrence (breast)
Orange, red, or deep yellow vegetables and fruits

Carrots, squash, mango, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and more

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 among people eating these regularly

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 connections:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antioxidant
  • Promote balance in bleeding and coagulation
Pomegranate juice or extract 

Cancer connection: linked to longer PSA doubling time (prostate cancer)

Alliums

Garlic, onions, shallots, scallions, and leeks 

Body terrain connections:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antioxidant
Quercetin

Foods high in quercetin include apples, black or green tea, onions, red grapes or wine, cherries, raspberries, citrus fruits, and broccoli

Body terrain connection: anti-inflammatory

Healthy proteins

Legumes such as dried beans, lentils, split peas, chickpeas, and flaxseed

Nutrient highlights: a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals

Body terrain connections:

  • Better blood glucose and insulin levels
  • Antioxidant
healthful sources of protein include fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, beans, and dairy
Flaxseed

Nutrient highlights: a good source of plant lignans and other phytoestrogens

Cancer connections of plant lignans and other phytoestrogens:

  • Linked to lower cancer risk (breast and colorectal in women, and lung)
  • Linked to better survival (breast cancer)

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)

Note: Soy supplements do not bring the same benefits as soy foods.

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 cancer)

Animal proteins with higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratios

These include wild-caught salmon, mackerel, or sardines, and high omega-3 eggs.

Body terrain connection: anti-inflammatory

Cancer connections:

  • Lower cancer risk (colorectal)
  • Better survival (head and neck, ovarian cancer)

Caution: higher risk of cancer or recurrence among people eating 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
  • Relatively low glycemic indexan indication of the ability of a food to raise blood sugar, in a value from zero (not at all) to 100 (pure glucose); high-GI foods are digested quickly and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream, while low-GI foods release glucose slowly and steadily into the bloodstream

Body terrain connection: promote a healthy microbiome

whole grain foods

Cancer connections:

  • Better survival (head and neck)
  • Lower risk of cancer (colorectal)
  • Lower risk or recurrence (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 omega-3 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 connections:

  • Linked to better sleep quality
  • Linked to less fatigue
Omega-6 fatty acids

Polyunsaturated fats from 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

Cautions:

  • Slightly higher risk of cancer among people who eat higher levels (skin cancer)
  • Hydrogenated polyunsaturated fats (trans-fats) are not a healthy choice (see below)

Mushrooms

Nutrient highlights:

Body terrain connections:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Promote immune function
  • Antioxidant
an assortment of mushrooms

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

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

Fermented foods

Probiotic yogurt (unsweetened and with live cultures), kefir, tempeh, natto, kombucha, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, cultured cheese, and more

Body terrain connections:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Promote a healthy microbiome

Cancer connection: lower risk of many types of cancer

Caution: higher risk of estrogen receptor-negative tumors among people eating higher levels of yogurt and cottage/ricotta cheese

fermented foods include saurkraut, pickled vegetables, olives, and yogurt

Also see Probiotics and Prebiotics ›

Beverages

Water

Body terrain connections:

  • Promotes digestion, hormone balance, immune system function, inflammation and other body terrain factors
  • Necessary to flush out toxic substances

Side effect connections:

  • Averts unpleasant and even dangerous symptoms of dehydration that could lead to treatment delays
  • Linked to less severe side effects of cancer treatment, such as nausea, weakness, constipation, and fatigue
Pouring a glass of water
Green tea

Body terrain connection: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant

Cancer connections:

  • Linked to better survival and enhanced effects of chemotherapy
  • Lower risk of several types of cancer

Cautions:

  • Higher risk of pancreatic cancer among people with higher consumption
  • Avoid caffeine if you’re at risk of dehydration or anxiety.
Coffee

Cancer connections:

  • Better survival and outcomes (breast)
  • Lower cancer risk (cancer as a whole and colorectal)

Cautions:

  • Irritating to the esophagus, avoid if you’re at risk of esophagitisinflammation of the esophagus from chemotherapy or radiation treatment to the chest
  • 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.

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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 and ovarian cancer

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

sources of unhealthy saturated fats include processes meat, fried foods, milk products, and red meat

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 connections:

  • 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

red meat is a less healthy source of protein

Nutrient concerns: a source of nitrites and/or nitrates, which are listed as probable carcinogens

Cancer connections:

  • 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:

  • White bread, pasta, cakes and cookies
  • Sweetened drinks
  • Sugar, honey, and other sweeteners
  • Fruit drinks
  • White potatoes
  • White flour
  • White rice
refined sugar and grains are not part of a healthy eating pattern for cancer

Nutrient concerns:

  • High glycemic loada number that estimates how much a food will raise a person's blood sugar level when eaten or glycemic indexan indication of the ability of a food to raise blood sugar, in a value from zero (not at all) to 100 (pure glucose); high-GI foods are digested quickly and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream, while low-GI foods release glucose slowly and steadily into the bloodstream
  • Low in fiber

Body terrain connections:

  • Inflammatory
  • Promotes worse blood sugar and insulin levels, which are linked to diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which are risk factors for cancer and poorer survival

Cancer connections:

  • Linked to worse survival (ovarian)
  • Promotes the growth of some types of cancer cells

Beverages

Drink these in moderation or not at all.

Alcohol

Cancer connection: higher risk of several types of cancers

Side effect connection: higher risk of dehydration

limiting alcohol consumption is recommended to reduce risk of cancer
Beverages containing caffeine

Cancer connection: higher risk of cancer (esophageal)

Side effect connections:

  • 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 and 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.

See Creating a Healing Environment › for more about the effects of these chemicals on your health and their connection to cancer.

Cooking with lower-temperature methods such as these reduces the formation of 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.

stewing or braising food at low heat produces fewer toxic chemicals than cooking at high heat
  • Marinate meat
  • Precook larger cuts
  • Use lean cuts
  • Cut meat into smaller portions and mix with vegetables

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.

Eating for a healthy microbiome

Foods that nourish a healthy microbiome are recommended for most people.

Fiber from vegetables, legumesa class of vegetables that includes beans, peas, and lentils, whole fruits, and whole grains feed bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids essential for colon health and immune function. Prebiotics also supply fibers for these bacteria and may be used especially after illness or antibiotic use that has disrupted gut microbes. Caution: if you have irritable bowel syndrome or another condition causing problems with gas and bloating, follow your medical team’s advice regarding fiber.

Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, and kombucha may help replenish the gut with healthy microorganisms known as probiotics. See Probiotics and Prebiotics ›

How Eating Well relates to other practices and habits

Eating Well’s connections to Managing Stress

Stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and food choices are all related. Interventions to improve food choices may possibly reduce depressive symptoms and stress. The reverse—that reducing depressive symptoms and stress may improve food choices—might also be true.

Preliminary evidencesignificant effects in small or poorly designed clinical studies OR conflicting results in adequate studies but a preponderance of evidence of an effect (this is the CancerChoices definition; other researchers and studies may define this differently) of unhealthy food choices among a subgroup of people reporting stress

Eating Well’s connections to Creating a Healing Environment

Foods are sometimes contaminated with chemicals during production or processing.

Some cooking methods can create harmful exposures, such as charring and cooking with high heat.

Some food packaging or storage containers can contaminate food with harmful chemicals.

Foods can be a source of viruses and bacteria.

Eating Well’s connections to Sharing Love and Support

For many people, sharing food preparation and meals—making them social activities—makes them more pleasurable and may help a person with cancer enjoy eating even when their appetite is low. Eating food in pleasant company may also improve digestion and absorption of nutrients. 

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.

Gonzalez Protocol™: This therapy uses freeze-dried pork pancreas, supplements, an individualized diet, and coffee enemas to alter cancer metabolism and inhibit growth. Evidence for improving treatment outcomes is either preliminary or weak.

Gerson regimen: This diet-based therapy regimen targets cancer cell metabolism; it includes a specific diet, supplements, and coffee enemas. Reviews of evidence regarding this approach have not found sufficient evidence of benefit as an adjuvant to other cancer therapies or as a cure.

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.”13Pizzorno J. Acidosis: an old idea validated by new research. Integrative Medicine (Encinitas). 2015 Feb;14(1):8-12.
  • 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.
  • Vegetarian or vegan diet: Lower risk of cancer as a whole, better body terrain factors, and improvements in some symptoms have been noted in people eating a vegetarian or 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.14Zick 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.

Helpful links

Ina, the Intelligent Nutrition Assistant ›

A knowledge-based personalized nutrition technology expert platform for people with cancer and chronic medical conditions

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.

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: March 2, 2024

Last full literature review: June 2021

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.

Our staff have no financial conflicts of interest to declare. We receive no funds from any manufacturers or retailers gaining financial profit by promoting or discouraging therapies mentioned on this site.

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