A healthy eating guide
Following a cancer diagnosis, many people want to make positive changes to their lives. Taking steps to live a healthier lifestyle is often a major part of these changes.
This information has been written for people living with or after cancer, who want to know more about a healthy diet. It explains why diet is important, and has tips on how to eat well and maintain a healthy body weight. It aims to help you think about what changes you may want to make, and help you put them into practice.
There are also answers to some commonly-asked questions about diet and cancer, and other sources of support and information, which we hope you’ll find useful.
For most people, a daily balanced diet includes:
lots of fruit and vegetables
plenty of starchy (carbohydrate) foods such as bread, rice, pasta, noodles, couscous and potatoes
some protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry, fish, nuts, eggs and pulses (beans and lentils)
some milk and dairy foods such as cheese, yoghurts and cream
just a small amount of food high in fat, salt and sugar
drinks should mainly be water, tea and coffee (without added sugar), or sugar-free drinks such as fizzy drinks, colas and squashes. We have more information about alcohol.
Fruit and vegetables are a good source of many vitamins and minerals, and a great source of fibre. They should make up about a third of the food we eat every day. But most of us don’t eat enough of them.
Research suggests that people who eat diets high in fruit and vegetables may have a lower risk of heart disease. It also suggests that these diets may reduce the risk of developing some types of cancer (cancers of the mouth, gullet and bowel). Fruit and vegetables help food move quicker through the digestive system and prevent constipation.
Try to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. A portion is 80g (3oz) of raw, cooked or tinned fruit and vegetables, and is roughly:
three heaped tablespoons of vegetables
a dessert bowl of salad
one average-sized fruit, like an apple, pear or banana
two smaller fruits, like apricots or plums
a slice of larger fruits, such as melon or mango
a handful of small fruits, like cherries or berries
a glass of fruit juice (150ml). Fruit juice only counts as one portion a day however much you drink.
Different coloured fruits and vegetables contain different nutrients. Eating a variety of fruit and vegetables of different colours will help make sure you’re getting a wide range of valuable nutrients.
Starchy foods and fibre
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Starchy foods such as bread, chapatti, cereals, rice, pasta, yams and potatoes are a very important part of a healthy diet. They are a good source of energy and a major source of fibre, iron and B vitamins. Starchy foods should make up about a third of the food we eat each day.
Foods rich in fibre are a healthy option, but most people don’t eat enough. Try to include a variety of fibre-rich foods in your diet, such as wholegrain bread, brown rice, oats, beans, peas, lentils, grains, seeds, fruit and vegetables.
High-fibre foods are more bulky. They help us feel full, so we’re less likely to eat too much. Fibre helps keep bowels healthy and prevent constipation. Eating a diet with plenty of high-fibre foods may also help reduce the risk of bowel cancer. And the fibre found in foods such as oats, beans and lentils may help reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood.
The body needs protein to perform a wide range of functions, such as the repair and growth of body cells. Protein-rich foods are often also a good source of vitamins and minerals.
Several studies suggest that eating lots of red and processed meat can increase the risk of developing bowel cancer and prostate cancer. Red meat is beef, pork, lamb and veal. Processed meats include sausages, bacon, salami, tinned meats, and packet meats like sandwich ham.
The greatest risk seems to be for people who eat two or more portions of red or processed meat (about 160g) a day. People who eat less than two portions a week (about 140g) seem to have the lowest risk. No link has been found between eating poultry, such as turkey and chicken, and the risk of developing cancer.
A portion of meat should be about the size of your palm. Try to avoid processed meats, and eat more fish, chicken, turkey, beans or lentils instead. Eating meat that‘s cooked at high temperatures, such as those used in frying and barbecuing, may also increase the risk of developing some cancers.
Other sources of protein
Other sources of protein, often found in vegetarian and vegan diets, include pulses (peas, beans, and lentils) and nuts. Pulses can form the base of lots of meals. Nuts can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes and are high in energy. They contain good amounts of both protein and some of the healthier unsaturated fats.
Some vegetarians include egg and dairy products, like cheese, as a source of protein in their diet. Although eggs are a good source of protein, hard dairy cheese can be high in unhealthy saturated fats and should be eaten in small amounts. Vegan cheese made from soya can be a healthier alternative to dairy cheese.
Soya is also available as mince, burgers, sausages, milk, and tofu. Myco-protein (Quorn™) can also replace mince, burgers and sausages as a source of protein.
There have been some concerns about soya and its effect on breast cancer. If you are worried about this, talk to your doctor or cancer nurse specialist.
Having some fat in our diet helps us to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K, and provides us with essential fatty acids that we can’t make ourselves. But most people in the UK eat too much fat.
Foods that are high in fat are also high in energy (calories), so eating a lot of fat can make you more likely to put on weight.
There are different types of fat:
Saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels in the blood and increase the risk of heart disease. Foods that are high in saturated fat include cheese, butter, ghee, burgers, sausages, samosas, biscuits, pastries, cakes and chocolate. Current advice is for men not to eat more than 30g, and women not to eat more than 20g of saturated fat a day. Try to use the nutrition label on foods as a guide. High-fat foods contain more than 20g of fat per 100g. Low-fat foods contain less than 3g of fat per 100g.
Unsaturated fat helps reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. Omega 3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fat, are found in oily fish like mackerel, salmon, trout and sardines. Several research studies have shown that eating 1-2 servings of oily fish a week reduces the risk of developing heart disease.
However, there may be some potential health risks from eating too much oily fish. This is because chemicals, pesticide residues, and metals like mercury may be found in the water the fish were caught in. These substances can end up in the water through industrial or farming processes. Mercury can occur naturally in the water. So the UK Food Standards Agency recommends that children, and women who may become pregnant, eat up to two portions a week, and that women past childbearing age and men don’t eat more than four portions a week.
Other good sources of unsaturated fat include nuts and seeds, and sunflower, olive and vegetable oil.
It’s important to try to eat less fat, and to choose foods that contain unsaturated fats instead of saturated.
What you can do to eat less fat:
Eat more skinless fish and chicken, rather than red meat.
Choose lean cuts of meat and trim off all the fat you can.
Eat less fried food - bake, grill, steam or poach food instead.
Choose lower-fat dairy products when you can.
When you’re shopping, check the labels for unsaturated and saturated fat, and choose lower-fat options.
Put more vegetables and beans and a bit less meat in stews and curries.
Try more vegetarian recipes.
Cut out or reduce the number of fatty takeaways, such as burgers, curries and kebabs, that you eat.
Avoid snacks that are high in fat, such as pastries, crisps and biscuits.
Diets that are high in salt can increase the risk of developing stomach cancer. Reducing your salt intake will help lower your blood pressure, and your risk of heart disease and strokes. Most people in the UK eat more salt than they need. The maximum recommended allowance of salt for adults is 6g per day, which is about a teaspoon.
When we think about how much salt we eat, we usually think of how much we add to our food or cooking. But about three-quarters (75%) of the salt we eat comes from processed foods such as bread, bacon, snacks and convenience foods.
You can find out how much salt is in processed foods by checking the labels. If there’s more than 1.5g salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium), the food is high in salt. Low-salt foods contain 0.3g salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium).
When you’re buying bread, cereal and ready meals, compare the amount of salt in different types and choose the lower ones. Frozen meals tend to have less salt than chilled ones. When you’re buying tinned vegetables and tuna, choose the type in spring water rather than salted water or brine.
Try not to add salt to your food.
Add herbs, spices or black pepper to pasta dishes, vegetables and meat instead of salt.
Marinate meat and fish before cooking to give them more flavour.
For meal ideas you might want to visit our section on recipes, which includes soups, salads, mains and desserts.