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What Foods Increase The Risk Of Cancer?

Last updated Nov. 24, 2016

Approved by: Krish Tangella MD, MBA, FCAP

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The food habits an individual follows are classified as modifiable risk factors, since by changing some of our food choices, we may reduce our risk for certain types of cancers.

There are many reasons people get cancer. These may include one’s genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices. Factors that define the kind of lifestyle a person follows include food habits, physical activity and exercise, alcohol consumption, use of certain drugs, etc. There is no guaranteed way to prevent yourself from getting cancer, but there are certain steps you can take to lower your risk for many types of cancer.

The food habits an individual follows are classified as modifiable risk factors, per the National Cancer Institute (at the National Institutes of Health), since by changing some of our food choices, we may reduce our risk for certain types of cancers. A high-fat and low-fiber diet may lead to obesity, which is a cancer risk factor. Some of the foods that may potentially increase one’s risk for cancer include:

Processed meat:

The American Institute for Cancer Research describes processed meat as “meat preserved by smoking, curing, or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives.” Some examples of processed meats include bacon, ham, sausage, deli meats, and hot dogs. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2010-12 concluded that even small portions of processed meat consumed on a regular basis have a significant correlation with an increase for colorectal cancer, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease.

Nitrates are usually added to processed meats to preserve their color or to prevent them from spoiling. It has been found through research studies that these nitrate compounds form cancer-causing compounds, called carcinogens. Lately, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) in their recommendations have advised that eating processed meat be completely avoided.

Red meat:

Another study in 2014 at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that a higher intake of red meat during adolescent years was linked to a 22% higher risk for pre-menopausal breast cancer and 13% overall increased risk for breast cancer. The research found that substitution of red meat with other protein sources may reduce pre-menopausal breast cancer risk. Maryam Farvid, the lead researcher for the study, suggests that women should consume red meat only once a week to decrease their risk for breast cancer. According to WCRF, fresh red meat should be restricted to less than 500 g (cooked) or 700 g (uncooked) per week.

Salted and pickled foods:

Consumption of salt in high quantities (especially through fast foods or restaurant foods) is detrimental to one’s health and can cause many medical issues, mainly due to the presence of the mineral sodium. Salt has been linked to stomach cancer when consumed in greater amounts.

Food that is burnt or barbecued:

Smoked, processed meats contain a substance called PAH, or polycystic aromatic hydrocarbon, which is produced with high temperatures and can be a cancer causing food. Meat that is cooked at a high temperature may contain PAH, as well as heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These substances are known to damage DNA. Overheated and burnt food, or even charred food, may contain PAHs, which are known carcinogenic substances.

The National Cancer Institute states that high-temperature cooking of certain food products, such as French fries and potato chips, during their preparation may produce acrylamide, which is a chemical that has application in various industries. Acrylamide is listed as a “probable human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Artificial sweeteners:

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic substances that are added as substitutes for sugar like saccharin and aspartame. It was found through studies on lab rats that saccharin could cause bladder cancer when administered in high quantities. However, further studies have not provided any conclusive evidence of a direct association between (FDA-approved) artificial sweeteners and cancer in humans.


http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Cancer_and_food (accessed on 12/02/2014)

http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/prevention/overview/patient/page3#Keypoint9 (accessed on 12/02/2014)

http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cooked-meats (accessed on 12/02/2014)

http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/diet-and-disease/cancer (accessed on 12/02/2014)

http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/acrylamide-in-food (accessed on 12/02/2014)

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Klassen, A. C., Garrett-Mayer, E., Houts, P. S., Shankar, S., & Torio, C. M. (2008). The relationship of body size to participation and success in a fruits and vegetables intervention among low-income women. Journal of community health, 33(2), 78-89.

Jian, L., Zhang, D. H., Lee, A. H., & Binns, C. W. (2004). Do preserved foods increase prostate cancer risk?. British journal of cancer, 90(9), 1792-1795.

Layton, D. W., Bogen, K. T., Knize, M. G., Hatch, F. T., Johnson, V. M., & Felton, J. S. (1995). Cancer risk of heterocyclic amines in cooked foods: an analysis and implications for research. Carcinogenesis, 16(1), 39-52.

Slavin, J. L. (2000). Mechanisms for the impact of whole grain foods on cancer risk. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 19(sup3), 300S-307S.

Cho, E., Smith-Warner, S. A., Spiegelman, D., Beeson, W. L., van den Brandt, P. A., Colditz, G. A., ... & Goldbohm, R. A. (2004). Dairy foods, calcium, and colorectal cancer: a pooled analysis of 10 cohort studies. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 96(13), 1015-1022.

Tsugane, S. (2005). Salt, salted food intake, and risk of gastric cancer: epidemiologic evidence. Cancer science, 96(1), 1-6.

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Nov. 24, 2016
Last updated: Nov. 24, 2016