Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Cancer is the scariest disease, and one of the most common. It’s the second- leading cause of death in the United States, and about 40 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes. While genetics do play a role, the vast majority of cancers are largely preventable—as many as 90 to 95 percent of cancer deaths are attributed to lifestyle factors including smoking, alcohol consumption, sun exposure, obesity, stress, and diet. So how you live can dramatically slash your chances of getting cancer, which makes following an anti-cancer diet one of the easiest things you can do to decrease your risk.
What Not to Eat
The first step in adopting an anti-cancer diet is to ditch factory-farmed meat, processed meat (pepperoni, salami, hot dogs, bacon), and charred or grilled meat, all of which are linked with a higher incidence of cancer. Excess sodium increases the likelihood of gastric cancer, and the trans fats found in margarine, fried foods, and processed baked goods can double your chances of breast cancer. Sugar and refined carbs boost the risk of prostate and other cancers. And watch out for cancer-provoking foods you might not have expected, like those healthy canned tomato sauces and coconut milks in your pantry. They’re probably packed in cans lined with bisphenol-A (BPA), which is linked with breast, prostate, and other cancers.
The Anti-Cancer Diet
The crux of the anti-cancer diet is to dramatically increase your intake of fruits and vegetables. The American Institute of Cancer Research estimates that increasing daily intake of fruits and vegetables to five servings per day could cut cancer rates by as much as 20 percent. Fresh fruits and veggies are loaded with antioxidants that combat oxidative stress—an overabundance of free radicals that can lead to DNA damage and the progression of cancer. Fruits and vegetables are also high in anti-inflammatory compounds that offset inflammation, a key factor in cancer development and tumor growth and progression. Then add healthy fats from nuts, olives, and avocado; lean protein (especially fatty fish); and plenty of legumes—they’re rich in fiber, which has been linked with a decreased incidence of cancer and other diseases.
Ready to cancer-proof your body? Fill your plate with these food groups, shown to lessen your risk:
Broccoli, cauliflower, and other crucifers are high in glucosinolates and other anti-cancer compounds that reduce the risk of lung, colorectal, and other cancers. Studies suggest that cruciferous vegetables protect against cancer more effectively than the total intake of fruits and vegetables.
Eat these: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, arugula, turnips, radishes.
Dark leafy greens
Spinach, kale, and other dark leafies are rich in carotenoids, especially beta carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin—antioxidants linked with a lower risk of breast and other cancers. They’re also high in folate, a B vitamin that repairs DNA damage, and some—like kale, arugula, and cabbage—do double-duty as members of the crucifer family.
Eat these: spinach, kale, chard, lettuce, collard greens, beet greens, watercress, arugula.
Red fruits and vegetables
Tomatoes, watermelon, and other crimson-hued veggies contain lycopene, a potent antioxidant that promotes apoptosis—cancer cell death—inhibits metastasis (the spread of cancer to other parts of the body), and protects against prostate, breast, and other cancers.
Eat these: tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, guava, papayas, red carrots, persimmons.
Blackberries, red cabbage, and the like are rich in anthocyanins, antioxidants that reduce inflammation, stimulate apoptosis, inhibit metastasis, and protect against breast, prostate, colon, lung, and other cancers. Some, such as red grapes, black plums, and blueberries, also contain resveratrol, another cancer-preventive antioxidant.
Eat these: beets, red cabbage, cherries, pomegranates, blackberries, blueberries, eggplant, purple cauliflower, black plums, prunes, red or purple grapes.
Yellow-orange fruits and vegetables
Sweet potatoes, mangoes, and other yellow-orange produce are packed with cancer-preventive carotenoids, especially beta-carotene and alpha-carotene. Some, such as sweet potatoes and winter squash, are also high in fiber, which reduces the risk of colorectal and other forms of cancer.
Eat these: carrots, winter squash, pumpkin, papaya, mangoes, apricots, yellow beets, dark leafy greens.
Berries are rich in a variety of phytochemicals including flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, ellagitannins, and lignans, as well as other compounds that reduce inflammation, minimize DNA damage, encourage apoptosis, mitigate cancer cell proliferation, and protect against a variety of cancers. Berries are also packed with cancer-preventive fiber and vitamin C, which may slow cancer growth.
Eat these: blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, mulberries, elderberries.
Onions, garlic, and other vegetables from the allium family contain cancer-preventive sulfur compounds that support the elimination of carcinogens and inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Onions are also rich in quercetin, a compound with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities that protects against ovarian cancer and other forms of cancer. And red onions contain anti-cancer anthocyanins.
Eat these: onions, garlic, leeks, chives, scallions, shallots, ramps.
Beans, peas, and lentils are loaded with cancer-preventive fiber, as well as a compound called inositol hexaphosphate (IP6) that reduces cancer cell proliferation and induces apoptosis in prostate, breast, skin, and liver cancer cells. Black beans and kidney beans also contain cancer-protective compounds known as anthocyanins. And studies link a higher intake of legumes with a significant decrease in colorectal cancers.
Eat these: black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, pintos, white beans, lentils, mung beans, soybeans.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds contain a variety of anti-cancer compounds, including anti-inflammatory vitamin E and monounsaturated fats, and studies link a higher consumption of nuts with a reduced risk of cancer, especially cancers of the digestive system. Brazil nuts are loaded with selenium, peanuts (technically a legume) contain resveratrol, and flaxseeds are rich in lignans, anti-inflammatory compounds associated with a lower incidence of breast and other cancers. Plus, chia and flax are especially high in fiber.
Eat these: almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts, Brazil nuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseed.
Tea is a key component of an anti-cancer diet because it’s rich in a variety of compounds that inhibit carcinogenesis—the process by which normal, healthy cells transform into cancer cells—of the skin, lung, oral cavity, esophagus, stomach, liver, prostate, and other organs. Green tea is the most concentrated dietary source of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a powerful antioxidant that protects against a variety of cancers. Black tea is also high in a variety of polyphenols with potent anticancer activities. And while they’re not members of the true Camellia sinensis tea family, rooibos and honeybush teas have chemopreventive properties as well.
Drink these: green tea, matcha, black tea, rooibos tea, honeybush tea.