Diet and cancer

There is a lot of research being done to find out how food may affect the risk of cancer developing. Some research has shown that being overweight could increase your risk of cancer. Research also suggests that eating fruit and vegetables may reduce the risk of certain cancers.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is one of the best choices you can make for your overall health. Healthy eating and aiming to stay at a healthy weight will help you increase your energy levels and improve your sense of well-being. It can also reduce the risk of new cancers, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Making changes to your diet is not always easy. It may be more difficult if you are coping with cancer and having treatment. You may want to make changes to your diet gradually, at a budget you can afford, and when you feel ready.

Talk to your doctor or nurse. They can refer you to a dietitian, who can advise you about changes you can make and any other dietary problems you might have during or after your cancer treatment.

Diet and cancer

Healthier diets could help prevent 1 in 10 cancers (10%) in the UK. A lot of research is being done into which types of food may affect our risk of developing cancer.

Research shows that being overweight increases the risk of developing some types of cancer. There are many reasons why people are overweight, but an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity are often factors.

Some foods we eat may increase our risk of cancer, but others may protect us. How our diet affects the risk of developing cancer is complicated, and we still do not completely understand it. Research suggests that eating fruit and vegetables may reduce the risk of certain cancers.

What we do know is that a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise helps us keep to a healthy weight. This can help reduce the risk of developing some cancers.

How diet can help reduce your risk of cancer

Macmillan Specialist Dietician Helen Kennedy explains how a healthy diet can reduce your risk of cancer and help if you're having treatment.

About our cancer information videos

How diet can help reduce your risk of cancer

Macmillan Specialist Dietician Helen Kennedy explains how a healthy diet can reduce your risk of cancer and help if you're having treatment.

About our cancer information videos


Why is a healthy diet important?

Food has nutrients that our bodies need. The main groups of nutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals, fats, fibre and fluids. A healthy, balanced diet gives you all the nutrients you need to keep your body working well. For most people, this includes:

  • lots of fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day)
  • plenty of starchy foods (carbohydrates), such as wholemeal 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 and yoghurt
  • a small amount of food high in fat, salt and sugar.

Drinks should be mainly water or tea and coffee (without sugar). If you drink fizzy drinks or squashes, try to reduce the amount you drink and have the sugar-free types instead. Try to limit the amount of fruit juice you drink as well.

Try to reduce the amount of processed and red meats and other high-calorie foods you eat, such as fast foods.

Having a healthy, balanced diet is one of the best choices you can make for your overall health. This includes thinking about what and how much you drink too. Many people find making the decision to follow a healthy, balanced diet helps give them back a sense of control. It can also help you feel that you are doing the best for your health.

Eating well and keeping to a healthy weight will help you keep up your strength, increase your energy levels and improve your sense of wellbeing. It can also help reduce the risk of new cancers and other diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes or having a stroke.

After cancer treatment, some people have a higher risk of other health problems, including diabetes, heart disease or osteoporosis (bone thinning). If you have been told that you may be at an increased risk of any of these conditions, it is especially important to follow a healthy diet to help prevent them.

When I got the diagnosis, it made me take a look at myself. I realised how important exercise and diet are to things like cancer. It made me realise it was time to make a major change.

David


Making changes

It is not always easy to make major changes to our lives. It can be even more challenging when you have to cope with cancer, and maybe cancer treatment, too.

Some people eat more when life is stressful. This is known as comfort eating. Others are so busy that they do not have time to look at healthier options when food shopping. It can sometimes be easier to choose ready meals. And for some people, the price of food is an issue.

You may want to make changes to your diet gradually, at a budget you can afford, and when you feel ready. You could start by writing down what you normally eat for a few weeks. Compare this with information on healthy eating. Then set yourself some small, realistic goals, and decide how you will achieve them.

For example, if you have never had fruit with breakfast, you could try adding fresh or stewed fruit, or having a glass of fruit juice. For snacks, try swapping chocolate with a small portion of dried fruit and nuts. Gradually increase your goals over time. Keep track of your progress and how you feel physically and emotionally. Making changes can be enjoyable. You may discover new foods that you have not tried before.

Before making changes to your diet, it can help to talk to a dietitian, your GP or a specialist nurse. This may be especially useful if you have any special dietary requirements or medical needs. A dietitian can help you make changes. They can also advise you about any other dietary problems you might have during or after your cancer treatment.

Whether you choose to make small or big changes to your diet, it may take time to find healthy foods that you like, or a diet that works for you. It can help to try different foods. This can stop you getting bored and may help motivate you to continue a healthy diet in the long term.

What makes up a healthy, balanced diet?

This diagram shows the proportion of each type of food you should try to eat for a healthy, balanced diet. Aim to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and starchy foods. The proportion of protein you eat should be smaller. The amount of dairy you have should be smaller still. You should aim to have only a small amount of oils and spreads.

Food groups pie chart
Food groups pie chart

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Try to identify a small number of changes and work on those initially, rather than trying to change too much at once. Small, sustained changes will have the most impact.

Barbara, Macmillan dietitian

Back to Healthy eating

Keeping to a healthy weight

Trying to keep to a healthy weight is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of cancer and other health problems.

Eating and socialising

When you have a healthy diet most of the time, you can still enjoy less healthy foods when you are socialising or celebrating.