Learning about cancer risk factors can be scary, especially when these risk factors can be something as common as food.
This knowledge can also raise a lot of questions: Why do certain foods increase cancer risk? Should these foods be avoided completely? What are healthier swaps for these foods?
Clinical dietitian Alyssa Tatum shares five food groups that have been linked to cancer and gives tips on how to approach your relationship with these foods going forward.
Red meat such as beef, pork, venison and lamb has been linked to colorectal cancer, Tatum says.
But this doesn’t mean saying a permanent goodbye to favorites like hamburgers. Instead, Tatum encourages diners to eat red meat less frequently and in smaller portions.
“We're not entirely saying ‘Don't eat it,’ but we're saying, ‘Try to reduce the frequency of red meat intake and choose smaller portions,’” Tatum says.
MD Anderson’s dietitians recommend a diet that is largely plant-based. Vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruits, nuts and seeds should make up 2/3 of what you eat, with lean animal protein and dairy products as the remaining third.
Dietitians also recommend eating under 18 ounces of red meat a week. Not sure what that looks like? It can help to visualize 18 ounces of meat as either six decks of cards or two softballs.
Tatum also notes that the temperature at which red meat is cooked can increase cancer risk. For example, chargrilled meats such as burgers and steaks have more potential carcinogens than the same items prepared at a lower temperature using methods such as baking or sous vide.
“When they are being cooked at such a high temperature, they can produce carcinogens that are linked to cancer,” Tatum says.
When opting to eat red meat, she suggests choosing an option with less marbling, trimming the fat or marinating meat before cooking. Other good sources of protein include plant protein, and lean protein options such as poultry and seafood.
Another category of meat that comes with a heightened cancer risk is processed meat.
Processed meat refers to any meat that has been preserved, or undergone changes to its shape and flavor. This includes most of the meat options found behind the deli counter, as well as hotdogs, ham, bacon and sausage.
These options are often preserved using nitrates and nitrites which Tatum says can increase the risk of colorectal and stomach cancers.
Making changes to your diet can feel overwhelming, so Tatum says to start small. When shopping for deli meats, that might look like choosing nitrite and nitrate-free options, or those with lower sodium and fat contents.
“I recommend seeing if there are healthy swaps available for that food and reading labels to compare products,” she says.
There are many stories debating the health risks and benefits of drinking alcohol. But as far as cancer experts are concerned, alcohol has been linked to an increased risk for several diseases including stomach, colorectal, esophageal, liver, pancreatic and breast cancers.
“Alcohol causes damage to the tissues over time which can lead to changes in the cell's DNA and increased risk for cancer,” Tatum says.
Ultra-processed food and drinks are indirectly linked to cancer risk due to increased levels of sugar and sodium, which can lead to weight gain and obesity.
“Eating these ultra-processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value can increase your cancer risk by causing weight gain and obesity. Obesity can increase your risk for cancer,” Tatum says.
She recommends reducing the amount of ultra-processed food in your diet by focusing on moderation and opting for smaller portion sizes.
“It's hard to say 100% never eat any ultra-processed foods again. That can be challenging or not realistic for some,” she says.
Much like ultra-processed options, these sweetened options can lead to weight gain and obesity, which can lead to heightened cancer risk.
While there have been some studies on whether artificial sweeteners pose a direct cancer risk, Tatum says the results are mixed.
She recommends approaching artificial sweeteners the same way she recommends using sugar: in moderation.
How your diet impacts cancer risk
Because these foods are so common, odds are you've probably eaten them before. But before you panic over the glass of wine you enjoyed on date night or the burgers you grilled at a tailgate, Tatum emphasizes the importance of habit in the link between diet and cancer risk.
“It’s not like if you had smoked meats last week at a barbeque that you’re going to have cancer now. It’s not necessarily that one-time exposure. It’s a repeated exposure over time and that’s the concern, so just try to eat those in moderation,” she says.