Reducing The Risk Of Cancer

Population studies have shown a relationship between specific dietary habits and the incidence of some cancers. The evidence that certain foods and food contaminants may cause cancer is mainly circumstantial. But the link is strong enough to suggest that dietary changes could reduce the risk of developing some cancers.

Few food substances can cause cancer directly. The methods of preserving and preparing foods and how much fat and fibre you eat, do however seem to influence your chances of avoiding cancer.

Dietary habits account for up to 35 per cent of cancer-related deaths in developed countries.

Fat and fibre- High-fat diets tend to be low in fibre, so it may be a lack of fibre that causes the development of these cancers. Eating less fat and more fibre is good for your heart and it may well protect you against cancer, too.

Obesity- People who are 40 per cent or more over their ideal weight are twice as likely to die of certain cancers. This may not be directly due to obesity; socioeconomic and environmental factors may be responsible. But maintaining your body weight within normal limits could be one way of protecting yourself.


  • Fatty foods are linked to bowel and breast cancer. The precise mechanism is still not clear, but some link with a high fat diet is certain.
  • Nitrites and nitrates are used to preserve meat and may be converted inside the stomach to potentially cancer- causing chemicals called nitrosamines. Vitamin C is now added to these foods to reduce the risk.
  • Alcohol consumption can put you at risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, stomach, liver and bowel if you drink too much. It is not known whether it is the alcohol or another ingredient that does the damage. Alcohol is especially toxic when combined with smoking cigarettes, pipes, or cigars.
  • Pickled foods and other highly acidic foods have been linked to the development of stomach cancer.
  • Salt-cured meat and fish are thought to be the cause of the high incidence of throat cancer in places that still use this method of preservation for many foods.


Cancer specialists have now published a number of dietary recommendations based on the results of their studies:

  • Fat should provide 30 per cent, or less, of the daily calorie intake.
  • Daily fibre consumption should gradually be increased to between 20 and 30 grams.
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables should be eaten every day to ensure a good supply of vitamins and minerals.
  • Alcoholic drinks should only be consumed in moderation.
  • Smoked, nitrate-cured and salted foods should not be eaten regularly.
  • Body weight should be kept within normal limits.


  • Fibre reduces the risk of developing bowel cancer- perhaps by speeding up the passage of faeces through the bowel. Whole grain breads and cereals, dried peas and beans, and fresh fruit and vegetables are high in fibre.
  • Vitamin E, like selenium and vitamins A and C, is thought to help prevent cancer by neutralizing the damaging effects of oxidizing substances in the body. Good sources include nuts, vegetable oils, meat, green leafy vegetables, and cereals.
  • Vitamin C may help prevent cancer, especially of the oesophagus and stomach, by stopping cancer- causing substances from being formed. Vitamin C is found in fresh fruit and vegetables, but it may be a different ingredient which protects against cancer.
  • Selenium is found in fish, shellfish, meat, whole grain cereals, and dairy products. It may prevent cancers caused by damage to cells from oxidizing substances released inside the body.
  • Cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and turnips, may reduce the risk of digestive and respiratory tract cancers, probably because they contain Vitamin A.
  • Vitamin A curbs cancer by a direct action on the cells, preventing them from changing to a cancerous state. However, too much vitamin A can be harmful, especially during pregnancy.
Dr. Karuna Chaturvedi
Dietetics Department
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