The best foods to help protect against cancer

Digby Bodenham By Digby Bodenham

Processed meat was this year classed by the World Health Organisation as a definite cause of cancer. It also said that red meat probably causes cancer.

Although eating meat is not as risky as smoking, the evidence proves that what we eat matters and we can all reduce the chances of getting certain types of cancer by changing our diets.

“About a third of all cancers are linked to diet, particularly colorectal (bowel), breast and prostate cancers, which are among the top four cancers (the fourth is lung),” says professor Karol Sikora, former head of the World Health Organisation’s Cancer Programme and medical director of Cancer Partners UK.

More than 300,000 people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer in the next year. But could this figure be reduced if we paid more attention to the food we eat?

Sadly, it isn’t quite that easy. Professor Sikora says that the connection between food and cancer is not a simple equation like smoking and lung cancer. “The dietary picture is much more complex – it’s about what we eat, what we don’t eat, how we cook it and the rest of our lifestyle – things like how much we weigh, whether we exercise and whether we drink alcohol,” he says.

And, if you do develop cancer, changing your diet “probably has very little effect, although it may make you feel better”.

So what are the ingredients that can help protect against cancer?

“We don’t know exactly which compounds have an anti-cancer effect,” admits Professor Sikora. “But the main message is that fruit and vegetables are rich sources of antioxidant compounds that protect against cancer.”

The best bet is to eat plenty of fibre, reduce our intake of animal fat and eat more fruit and vegetables.

Here are some of the best things to eat, and the food that could be detrimental to your health.

Good news foods

Brassicas – cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, pak choi and kale

Brassicas have been found to protect against bladder, breast, colon, lung and skin cancers. They are rich in plant chemicals that are thought to have a protective effect.

Scientists at Norwich’s Institute of Food Research found that one of these allyl isothiocyanates (AITCs), released when certain brassicas are eaten, put a brake on uncontrolled cell division in colon cancer cells. AITC is, in turn, a breakdown product of sinigrin, a phytochemical found in mustard, cabbage, horseradish, cauliflower, sprouts, swede, kale and wasabi.


Tuck into fibre-rich foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain bread, pasta and brown rice and pulses such as chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans.

A high-fibre intake seems to help protect against bowel cancer and even counteracts the potentially harmful effects of a meaty diet. It’s believed that this is because fibre speeds the passage of food through the gut so that potentially harmful cancer-causing compounds formed when you eat red meat spend less time in contact with cells lining the bowel walls.


Eating a portion of fish at least every other day may help protect you against bowel cancer, especially if you eat a lot of meat.

Oily fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel may also reduce the risk of developing prostate cancer. Studies suggest that Omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish could also help inhibit breast cancer.


Tomatoes and tomato products such as ketchup, tinned tomatoes and tomato paste contain the antioxidant lycopene, which may protect against prostate cancer, although studies have had mixed results.

Soya products

Soya products, such as tofu, soy milk or miso, may lower the risk of breast, prostate and bowel cancer. Although the action of soya on cells is not conclusive.

Green tea

Green tea may reduce the risk of several cancers, thanks to the presence of high levels of plant chemicals called catechins. As yet, though, large-scale studies are needed to confirm this.

Food to avoid

Red and processed meat

Keep your red and processed meat intake down. The Government advises people who eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and/or processed meat a day to cut down to 70g or less.

To put that in perspective, two sausages add up to about 60g of processed meat.

Certain proteins in red and processed meat trigger a process called nitrosation in the gut, which can lead to the formation of cancer-causing compounds.

There is good guide to the relationship between meat and cancer on Cancer Research UK’s website.

Keep an eye on your intake of saturated (animal) fats, which are found in full-fat milk, meat and products such as biscuits and cakes. Research has shown that having more than 90g of saturated fat a day can double the risk of breast cancer.

It’s not just what you eat

What you drink can also have a significant effect on your risk of developing cancer.

In one study reported in 2003, Cancer Research UK estimated that alcohol accounted for around 4% of breast cancers in the developed world and around 2,000 cases each year in the UK.

It is thought that alcohol pushes up levels of oestrogen in the blood, higher levels of which are linked to a greater risk of breast cancer.

There is no miracle food that can prevent you from getting cancer, but making sure you have a healthy diet is a proven way to cut down the risks of certain cancers.

Eating plenty of fibre, fruit and vegetables will not only help protect you from getting ill, but you’ll feel better after eating them as well.

Bought By Many has used the collective buying power of our vegetarian members to negotiate a discount on health insurance. You can receive money off a policy, join our health insurance for vegetarians group.

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