Reducing the risk of cancer
In this article, you will find information for those who are interested in knowing how they can help reduce their risk of cancer.
If you are a new mum, then breastfeeding may help to protect you and your baby from risk of certain cancers later in life. Breastfeeding reduces the mother's risk of breast cancer. Evidence also suggests that being breastfed may protect children against being overweight and obese, which in turn reduces their risk of cancer in the future. For more information see our pages on breastfeeding.
Top tips for reducing your risk of cancer
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet – try to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and include high-fibre and wholegrain foods in your diet like wholegrain breakfast cereals, wholewheat pasta and pulses (such as lentils and beans), nuts and seeds.
- Keep track of your red and processed meat intake – if you on average eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day (that’s around 600g a week) cut down to 70g a day (that’s less than 500g a week).
- Watch your salt intake – aim for less than 6g a day. Check the nutrition label on foods, choose reduced salt versions of foods, and do not add salt in cooking or at the table.
- Maintain a healthy weight – being overweight or obese is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking. If you need help losing weight speak to your GP for advice on the support that is available to you.
- Keep active – aim for at least 150 (2 hours and 30 minutes) minutes a week of moderate activity – that’s the type of activity where you raise your heartbeat and sweat but you are still able to talk. This can be fast walking, dancing or even housework or gardening if you put enough brisk activity into it!
- Drink in moderation – try to drink no more than 14 units a week, with several alcohol-free days each week.
- Give up smoking – smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer.
It is estimated that healthier diets could help prevent 1 in 10 cancers in the UK. The strongest dietary links are with cancers of the digestive tract – mouth, food pipe (gullet or oesophagus), stomach and bowel (colon).
Each year in the UK, more than 331,000 people are diagnosed with cancer. The four most common cancers are breast, prostate, lung and bowel (colorectal) which make up over half of all these cases. It is estimated that 1 in 2 people will develop cancer at some point in their lives.
Many people are affected by cancer, either directly, or because they know somebody who has been affected by the disease. Unfortunately there are no proven ways to prevent cancer, but the good news is there are some lifestyle measures you can take to help reduce your risk.
Cancer is a complex disease, and the risk of developing cancer depends on a combination of factors. Some risk factors you cannot change like your genes but other aspects of your life you can control, for example:
- over exposure to the sun or sunbeds
- drinking too much alcohol
- being overweight or obese
- lack of physical activity
For more information on genetic and other causes of cancer see the Cancer Research UK website.
Tobacco is the single biggest avoidable cause of cancer in the world. Smoking causes over a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK and nearly 1 in 5 cancer cases. Obesity is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking.
But eating a healthy, balanced diet can play a key role in reducing your risk of cancer.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet
Overall, research suggests a link between healthy eating patterns and a reduction in cancer risk, rather than any specific foods, vitamins or nutrients.
There is good evidence that a healthy, varied diet based on the principles of the Eatwell Guide may help to lower your risk of developing certain cancers. Try to:
- Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
- Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates. Choose wholegrain or high fibre varieties where possible.
- Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks and yogurts). Choose lower fat and lower sugar options.
- Have some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins. Aim for at least two portions of fish every week – one of which should be oily, such as salmon or mackerel.
- Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat in small amounts.
- If you choose to include foods or drinks high in fat, salt and sugars, have them less often and in small amounts.
There are recommendations on certain aspects of the diet and cancer risk, for example eating too much red and processed meats and salt, may increase the risk of developing some cancers like colorectal cancer and stomach cancer. While eating plenty of foods, such as fruits, vegetables and foods high in fibre, may help reduce the risk of some cancers like mouth, throat and colorectal cancer.
Diet and fibre
There is strong evidence that eating plenty of foods containing fibre can reduce the risk of bowel cancer. However, many people are not eating enough fibre. On average, adults in the UK get about 18g a day of fibre but should aim for at least 30g a day.
Fibre is found in foods that come from plants. Foods high in fibre include wholegrain pasta, bread and breakfast cereals. Pulses, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds also contain fibre. A healthy, balanced diet can provide enough fibre to meet the recommendations, but you will need to eat your 5 A DAY, beans and pulses, and other high-fibre foods like wholegrains and potatoes in skins. For more information see our page on fibre.
Eating foods high in fibre may also help you to feel fuller for longer, which can help if you are trying to lose weight.
Fruit and vegetables
Several studies suggest that eating plenty of fruit and vegetables may help reduce the risk of certain cancers.
It has been suggested that the beneficial effect of fruit and vegetables might be due to the package of nutrients that they contain such as vitamins, minerals and fibre. They also contain substances called phytochemicals (phyto means 'plant' so these are chemicals naturally found in plants), which may help to protect cells in your body from damage that can lead to cancer.
Eating 5 A DAY
Different fruit and vegetables provide different amounts and combinations of nutrients so it’s important to eat a wide variety of different types of at least five portions (1 portion = 80g) of fruit and vegetables each day. Fruit and vegetables are also low in energy (calories) and high in fibre, and so could help to prevent weight gain. This is important as obesity is a major risk factor for cancer.
Red and processed meat
Meat is a good source of protein, and vitamins and minerals, such as iron and zinc and can be enjoyed as part of a healthy, balanced diet. However, evidence suggests that a high consumption of red and/or processed meat is linked with an increased risk of bowel cancer – the evidence is stronger for processed meat. But to put it into perspective, the overall risks of developing bowel cancer because of your consumption of red and/or processed meat are small compared to other factors linked to cancer such as smoking.
'Red meat' refers to beef, pork and lamb. 'Processed meat' refers to meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives, and includes bacon, sausages, salami and ham.
The Department of Health recommends people who eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day to cut down to 70g (100g raw weight), the equivalent of 500g a week (700g raw weight).
The Eatwell Guide recommends choosing lean cuts of meat and mince, and to eat less processed meat like bacon, ham and sausages. Further advice is to eat beans and pulses as alternatives to meat because they're lower in fat, higher in fibre and more sustainable.
A high intake of salt and salted foods is linked with an increased risk of stomach cancer. Our intake of salt should be less than 6g (2.4g sodium) a day. On average, people in the UK consume more salt than is recommended.
Three-quarters of the salt we eat is already in everyday foods such as bread, ham and bacon, sauces, gravies and ready meals. So use the information available on food labels to help you identify which foods are high in salt. For more information see our pages on food labelling.
If you have low levels of particular nutrients, you may need to take dietary supplements, and your GP may prescribe particular nutritional supplements in certain situations.
For healthy individuals, nutritional needs should be met through diet alone, rather than relying on supplements (although vitamin D should be considered by the population in winter months).
Dietary supplements are not recommended for cancer prevention.
In a review of the evidence some studies suggested certain high-dose supplements seem to protect against cancer, but others seemed to increase cancer risk. This research was done on specific groups of people and not on the public so to make recommendations on the benefits or risks of supplements for everyone is not possible. Therefore, for most people, eating a healthy, balanced diet is a better way of reducing your cancer risk than taking supplements.
Turmeric and cancer
The spice, turmeric, popular in South Asian cuisine, has been associated with cancer prevention and treatment. Research has shown that an association between low rates of certain types of cancer and countries where people eat curcumin at levels of about 100 to 200mg a day over long periods of time, although the reasons for this could be because of other factors in these countries. Some laboratory-based studies have shown that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, at high enough doses can kill cancer cells and prevent more from growing.
However whilst these studies are promising a larger number of good quality clinical trials are needed in humans, before we will know if turmeric has any potential benefit, In the meantime turmeric should not be used instead of cancer treatment but can be enjoyed in a curry as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Maintaining a healthy weight
Being overweight or obese is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking and is estimated to cause 18,100 cancer cases each year in the UK. Worryingly, many people are unaware of the link between obesity and cancer.
Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of developing cancers of the oesophagus (the tube leading from your mouth to your stomach), stomach, bowel, pancreas, endometrium (lining of the womb), ovaries, prostate, kidney, liver, gallbladder and breast (in post-menopausal women).
Try to make sure your body mass index (BMI) stays within the healthy range of 18.5 to 24.9. This can be done by eating a healthy, varied diet and being physically active every day.
Staying physically active
As well as helping to control your weight research shows that being active or doing exercise has a direct role in preventing some cancers like bowel, womb (endometrium) and breast cancer. Being active can also help to protect against cancers that are linked to being overweight and obese.
Physical activity recommendations for health recommended that we do moderate aerobic intensity physical activity such as cycling or fast walking, for at least 150 minutes over the week in bouts of 10 minutes or more.
Moderate activity will raise your heart rate and make you breathe faster and feel warmer. One way to tell if you're working at a moderate level is if you can still talk, but you can't sing the words to a song.
Or we can take part in 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, such as running or a game of singles tennis, every week.
Vigorous activity makes you breathe hard and fast. If you're working at this level, you won't be able to say more than a few words without pausing for breath.
Physical activities to improve muscle strength that works all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) should be carried out on at least two days per week. If you’re not used to doing much activity, start by working towards 30 minutes a day – remember that doing something is better than nothing.
Try and incorporate physical activity into your daily routine, for example take a brisk walk in your lunch break, cycle or walk as part of your commute to work (or all the way if it isn’t too far), use the stairs instead of the lift, or get off the bus one stop before you usually do and walk the rest of the way to your destination.
For more information see our pages on keeping active.
Sedentary behaviour is a group of behaviours that occur whilst sitting or lying down that require very low energy expenditure such as watching TV, sitting in front of a screen or using your car to take all journeys.
Sedentary behaviour is different from physical inactivity, which is a lack of physical activity in everyday life. You can still be sedentary even if you are physically active, for example if you sit at a desk during the day and exercise in the evening.
Interestingly there has also been some research that suggests sedentary behaviours are also associated with increased risks of colon cancer, endometrial cancer and lung cancer.
Drinking less alcohol
Alcohol is one of the most well-established causes of cancer. Drinking alcohol regularly can increase the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, breast and colon.
New evidence around the health harms from regular drinking has emerged in recent years. There is now a better understanding of the link between drinking and some illnesses, including a range of cancers. Stronger evidence has emerged that the risk of a range of cancers, especially breast cancer, increases directly in line with consumption of any amount of alcohol.
To keep risks of developing these types of cancer to a low level, try to limit your alcohol consumption to no more than 14 units of alcohol per week and have several alcohol-free days a week:
- half a pint of 4% lager = 1 unit
- a small glass of wine (125ml) = 1.5 units
- single spirit and mixer = 1 unit
If you do drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread this evenly over three days or more rather than having one or two heavy drinking sessions.
Breastfeeding is recommended for several reasons including protecting your baby against certain infections. Breastfeeding also has long-term health benefits and protects you from certain chronic diseases later in life, including some cancers. The Department of Health recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively for 6 months.
After that, breastfeeding alongside giving your baby family foods for the first two years, or for as long as you and your baby want, will help them grow and develop healthily.
What do these recommendations mean for me?
Evidence over several decades points to a simple, fact that you can reduce your risk of cancer by a series of long-term healthy behaviours such as not smoking, eating a healthy, varied diet, keeping active, maintaining a healthy bodyweight and cutting back on alcohol.
Information reviewed October 2016.
The FAQ below answers some common questions about how diet can affect the risk of getting cancer:
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.