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 and not eating enough fruit and vegetables could increase your risk of cancer.

Eating a balanced diet is one of the best choices you can make for your overall health. Keeping to a healthy weight will help you maintain or regain your strength and have more energy. It can also reduce the risk of new cancer, 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 could make changes gradually so that it is easier to eat differently.

Talk to your doctor or nurse as they can refer you to a dietitian, who can advise you about changes you should be making.

Diet and cancer

Experts think that up to 1 in 10 cancers (10%) in the UK may be linked to diet. There’s a lot of research being done into which types of food may affect our risk of developing cancer.

Research suggests that a lack of fruit and vegetables in the diet may contribute to about 6 in 100 cancers (6%) in men. And being overweight may contribute to about 7 in 100 cancers (7%) in women. There are many reasons why people are overweight, but an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity are often factors.

Our diets are made up of many types of foods, which in turn are made up of thousands of different substances. Some of these may increase our risk of cancer, but others may protect us. How diet affects our risk of developing cancer is complicated, and we still don’t completely understand it.

Despite this, we do know that a balanced diet and regular exercise help us keep to a healthy weight, which can help reduce the risk of developing some cancers.

Chicken, sweetcorn and noodle soup

Why a healthy diet is important

Having a balanced diet is one of the best choices you can make for your overall health. Many people find making this positive choice helps give them back a sense of control. It can also help you feel that you’re doing the best for your health. Thinking about what and how much you drink is part of this too.

Eating well and keeping to a healthy weight will help you maintain or regain your strength, have more energy, and have an increased sense of well-being. It can also help reduce the risk of new cancers and other diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

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

Making changes to your diet

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

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

You may want to make changes to your diet gradually, at a comfortable pace, 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’ve never had fruit with breakfast, you could try adding fresh or stewed fruit, or having a glass of fruit juice. For snacks, you could 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, as you may discover new foods that you haven’t tried before.

Before making changes to your diet, it can help to talk to a dietitian, your GP or specialist nurse. A dietitian can help you make changes, and can also advise you about any other dietary problems 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.

Try to identify a small number of changes that can be made and work on those initially, rather than trying to change too much at once.

Barbara, Macmillan dietitian

Back to Healthy eating

Staying healthy

A balanced diet will provide everything you need to keep your body healthy. It will contribute to your well-being.