The Top Foods to Avoid to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer

It’s never too late to change your diet in a way that better supports your overall health.

By: Lauren Panoff MPH, RD

We know that some foods are considered to be healthier than others, but what makes certain foods more likely to promote cancer? It all comes down to the nutritional makeup of food, what’s found in it, and how it behaves in your body. Keep reading to find out the top foods to avoid to reduce your risk of cancer. 

RELATED: The Top Cancer-Fighting Foods, According to Research

What Makes Some Foods More Carcinogenic? 

Generally speaking, you can evaluate foods based on whether they’re closer to their natural form or a form produced in a plant. In other words, how processed (or ultra-processed) is the food you’re eating? This matters. 

Recently, the World Cancer Research Fund completed a study of over 265,000 healthy adults to examine the relationship between ultra-processed food consumption and multimorbidity — or the co-occurrence of at least two chronic diseases in an individual among first cancer at any site, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.

The authors found that each 10 percent point increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked with an increased incidence of overall cancer, especially breast and ovarian. Here’s what this means for us. 

Foods high in saturated fats, added sugar, and refined carbohydrates can contribute to obesity, insulin resistance, and chronic inflammation, all of which are known risk factors for cancer development. 

Another significant factor is the formation of harmful compounds during cooking or processing. When foods are fried, grilled, or roasted at high temperatures, they can produce cancer-promoting compounds like acrylamide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that can damage DNA. 

Finally, certain additives and preservatives commonly found in ultra-processed foods (like nitrites and nitrates) can form carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines when your body digests them. 

Below are some of the most widely consumed foods that fit these characteristics. 

RELATED: 5 Lifestyle Strategies to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer

Red and Processed Meats

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has categorized red meat and processed meat as probably carcinogenic and carcinogenic for people, respectively. 

Processed meats often contain additives like nitrites and nitrates, which can form carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds when cooked at high temperatures. Furthermore, the high-fat content of red meats can contribute to obesity, which is a known risk factor for several types of cancer. 

Instead, choose lean protein sources like poultry, fish, beans, and lentils.

Eat less of these: 

  • Hot dogs
  • Sausage
  • Bacon
  • Cheeseburgers
  • Deli meat

Sugary Foods and Beverages

Look around our food system today, and it’s not always easy to find things that don’t contain added sugar and other sweetening agents. Unfortunately, high consumption of added sugar has been linked to obesity, insulin resistance, and inflammation, all of which are risk factors for cancer. 

Plus, sugary foods and drinks contribute to elevated insulin levels, which can promote the growth of cancer cells. Drinking a lot of sugary beverages like soda and fruit juices can also lead to weight gain and an increased risk of obesity-related cancers. 

Choosing whole fruits over fruit juices (like apples over apple juice) and opting for water or unsweetened beverages instead of sugary drinks can help lower cancer risk while supporting your overall health. 

Eat less of these: 

  • Soda
  • Fruit juice
  • Sports and energy drinks
  • Pastries, donuts, and cookies

Fried Foods

When foods are fried at high temperatures, they can form harmful compounds called acrylamide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which can damage DNA and promote cancer cell growth. 

Fried foods are often high in unhealthy fats and calories, which can contribute to weight gain and obesity, both of which are risk factors for cancer. 

Opt for healthier cooking methods such as baking, grilling, or steaming instead of frying.

Eat less of these: 

  • French fries
  • Fried chicken
  • Onion rings
  • Fried fish
  • Mozzarella sticks
  • Fried plantains
  • Chicken nuggets

Highly Processed and Packaged Foods

Convenience and flavor are two driving factors in our food choices today, which means that many of the foods we eat have been highly processed and come in crinkly packages. In fact, research shows that nearly 60% of the calories in a typical American’s diet pattern come from ultra-processed foods. 

These types of foods often contain high levels of additives, preservatives, artificial flavors, and colors, which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Some additives found in ultra-processed foods, such as nitrites and nitrates, can form carcinogenic compounds when metabolized by the body. 

Many ultra-processed foods are also high in unhealthy fats, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates, which can contribute to obesity, insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, and cancer development. 

Plus, eating a lot of ultra-processed foods regularly can take up space in your diet for whole, nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, which are protective against cancer. 

Eat less of these: 

  • Potato chips
  • Packaged cookies
  • Crackers
  • Granola bars
  • Fruit snacks
  • Pudding cups
  • Candy
  • Cheese puffs

Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol is classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), meaning it directly contributes to the development of cancer. 

Alcohol is digested by your body into acetaldehyde, a toxic compound that damages DNA and proteins, leading to cellular mutations and promoting cancer growth. 

Additionally, alcohol consumption can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb and utilize essential nutrients, impair immune function, and contribute to chronic inflammation — all of which are factors that can increase cancer risk. 

If you don’t drink alcohol, there’s no reason to start. If you do consume it, be sure to practice moderation, which is defined as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men according to the USDA.

Healthier Food Choices For a Healthier Life

One meal, one day, or even one week of less healthy food choices isn’t going to make or break your health. However, it’s the overall pattern that counts. It’s never too late to change your diet in a way that better supports your overall wellness and cancer protection. Consider areas where you can remove certain foods and replace them with healthier minimally processed ones — like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.