10 Foods That Are Tied Directly to Cancer

Updated: Jan. 22, 2019

You already know that certain foods are bad for your waistline and heart, but recent research confirms that junk food and other culprits may up your risk for cancer, too. Here’s what you need to know.

PENANG, MALAYSIA - December 20, 2017 - Rows of shelves with variety of good, foods & drinks in a Grocery Store in a mall.
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Food for thought

There are plenty of reasons to improve the quality of your diet, but researchers have recently confirmed that lowering your risk of developing certain types of cancer may be the best reason of all. Eating processed foods high in sugar, fat, and sodium puts you at higher risk of obesity and related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. And now a study published in the journal PLOS Medicine finds a link between a nutrition-poor diet and an increased risk of many types of cancers.

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The research

The researchers relied on a U.K. nutritional labeling system known as the Nutri-Score logo—which has been in use since 2007—to evaluate the diets of more than 470,000 adults. Even after correcting for other factors such as exercise habits and smoking, they found that adults whose diets featured foods with the poorest scores had the highest risk of stomach, colorectal, and respiratory tract cancers, as well as lung cancer (for men) and liver and postmenopausal breast cancer (for women). Check out 30 foods proven to help prevent cancer.

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Don’t fear food

The study doesn’t indicate that an occasional drive-through dinner is going to kill you. Experts say that the problem is with a diet that’s consistently poor: If you’re not regularly eating lean protein, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables and instead eating a diet heavy on fat, sugar, sodium, and processed foods—it’s time to reevaluate. Here are the types of food that experts say you’ll want to cut back on to lower your risk of cancer.

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Grill aficionados, beware: “High intake of meat, particularly well-cooked meat, has been associated with increased risk of cancers,” says Mia Gaudet, PhD, scientific director of epidemiology research for the American Cancer Society (ACS). The problem seems to be that cooking meat on a grill leads to the production of carcinogenic compounds known as PAHs, she says.

Essentially, the mouthwatering char marks on a flame-broiled burger or steak are the sign of chemicals that may not be as good for you as they taste. In studies, rodents that were fed high amounts of these compounds developed cancerous tumors. Even burnt toast has some, but in much smaller amounts, says Gaudet. So if you regularly cook your meat at very high temperatures, you may want to consider alternate methods. Look into these 37 other ways you can reduce your risk of cancer.

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Fermented foods have grown popular lately, in part because they’re said to have digestive benefits thanks to their supply of healthy bacteria. But some preliminary research suggests that their high salt content may be linked to stomach cancer. “Studies have found higher rates of cancer among Asian populations that consume a lot of fermented kimchi and smoked fish,” says Robert Segal, MD, founder of Medical Offices of Manhattan. Consider swapping in some of these other gut-friendly foods instead.

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The process used to preserve meats like sausage, bacon, ham, and salami leads to the formation of nitrites, compounds that researchers have found can increase the risk of colon and other cancers, says Gaudet. For that reason, ACS guidelines recommend limiting processed meats in your diet. Eat less meat that has been preserved through smoking, salting, or curing. Make sure you’re on the lookout for these tough-to-spot colon cancer symptoms.

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When it comes to alcohol, it’s more about quantity than quality. “There are strong links to increased risk of cancer with moderate to high alcohol intake,” says Gaudet. That’s why experts recommend no more than one serving of alcohol—the equivalent of a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce serving of wine, or 1.5-ounce shot of liquor per day for women; men can double those servings on account of their higher body weight. Check out other foods you should never eat if you don’t want to get cancer.

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Trans fats

Most people didn’t even know what these were until the FDA banned them in 2015. (You can still get trace amounts from the naturally occurring trans fats in meat and dairy products.) The ban could help prevent thousands of cardiac-related deaths a year. Manufacturers used the man-made version of these fats—they’re also called partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs)—to make foods more shelf stable and to replace saturated fats: They were even used to make margarine that was marketed as a “healthier” version of butter.

Researchers finally realized that trans fats raise the risk of a number of chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease. On their own, trans fats haven’t been conclusively linked to cancer risk, but one study found that breast cancer patients whose diets included trans fats have a 78 percent higher chance of dying within seven years of their diagnosis than those who avoided PHOs.

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Red meat

Sorry, Ron Swanson, but beef, pork, and even lamb may up your risk of cancer. Eating more than 18 ounces total of the stuff each week can increase your chances of developing colorectal cancers, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. This is why most official guidelines recommend getting the majority of the protein in your diet from plant-based sources such as beans and tofu. Check out 15 things cancer doctors do to avoid getting cancer.

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While researchers are still investigating the link between sugar and cancer, getting too much of the sweet stuff (and soft drinks are a particularly egregious source) certainly leads to weight gain; one thing that’s abundantly clear is that being overweight raises your cancer risk. For example, the more body fat you have, the higher your levels of circulating estrogen—and that worsens your odds of developing breast and reproductive cancers, Dr. Segal warns.

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Microwave popcorn

Often, microwavable popcorn bags are lined with a nonstick coating that contains PFOA, a chemical that has been shown in animal studies to increase the risk of liver, testicular, and pancreatic cancers, among others. Popping your own may take longer but is worth the trouble. Some brands offer alternative liners, too. Read more about other surprising cancer culprits.

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Canned tomatoes and sauces

Manufacturers use bisphenol A (BPA) in certain kinds of plastics and—until recently—the linings of cans used for canned goods. The problem? BPA can interfere with the body’s natural production of sex hormones, upping the risk for breast and prostate cancer. Because of their high acidity, tomatoes tend to leach the chemical from the can lining, making them a much more concentrated source of BPA. While many manufacturers have begun phasing out the use of BPA, you may want to get your tomatoes and acidic citrus fruits fresh.

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Hot beverages

There’s been a lot of debate over this because coffee and tea have other health advantages. Recently, the World Health Organization removed coffee from its list of potential carcinogens. But there is still evidence suggesting that serving beverages at 149° F or higher could elevate the risk of esophageal cancer—which is deadly. Researchers believe that the high temperatures may damage tissue, leaving it vulnerable to the development of cancerous lesions. Lots of commercial beverages are served in the 140-160° F range, so err on the side of caution when it comes to letting your drinks cool. Try incorporating into your life 30 more simple ways to help protect against cancer.