Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the world. Globally, there were 17 million cases of cancer and 9.6 million deaths by cancer in 2018.

As a Urologist, I know that a huge number of people want to know the dos and don’t when it comes to lowering one's risk of cancer risk. Unfortunately, I can’t narrow it down to a list.

While family history may carry the day in determining our risk of developing cancer, there are also a number of lifestyle factors that can play a significant role in our risk down the road.

In this article, I am going to talk about the connection between your nutrition and cancer while also telling you the truth about “popular foods that are believed to cause cancer.”

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Quick Facts About Cancer

  • Cancer is defined as the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells which may invade surrounding healthy organs and tissues. This process may cause death due to the halt in healthy function of tissues and organs as well as some of the potential complications involved in treatment.

  • The most common types of cancer by prevalence rate are:

  1. Lung
  2. Breast
  3. Colorectal
  4. Prostate
  5. Skin cancer
  6. Stomach cancer.
  • ⅓ of cancer deaths are due to a high BMI, low fruit and vegetable intake, a sedentary lifestyle, tobacco use and overuse of alcohol. Tobacco is responsible for 22% of cancer deaths.

Cancer And Your Nutrition: What’s The Connection?

It’s important to appreciate that it’s really the difference between processed and unprocessed foods.

If you pick out things that are “more commonly linked to the risk of cancer”, invariably you’re going to see things on that list that are processed or are artificial in some way.

If I was going to make this article eight words long, I would say:

“Eat less processed things, eat more natural things.”

A recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study reports that our daily diets are now responsible for 20% of global deaths each year. Rather than focusing on the epidemic of obesity, the study highlights how our “poor-quality diets” are significantly shortening our lives.

The study reports that the top 3 culprits were consuming too much salt, too few wholegrains and too little fruit.

When we’re solely looking at our diets from a cancer risk perspective, I think it’s essential to look not specifically at food groups but food choices.

Here’s an example. If you take a test for omega 3, and realize that your levels are low, your doctor will tell you to eat more omega-rich, oily fish.

You might think that a good shortcut would be to go straight to supplements, while I’m not knocking this approach, I think it’s important to mention that the best way you can get your omegas is by eating fresh fish.

The same goes for the classic “fish & chips” or fish that you would find in the frozen aisle in supermarkets.

You might think, “Well, this is fish, I’m doing what my doctor told me!” However, that is simplifying an instruction. If you want to naturally boost your omega in the healthiest way, you’ll go for the best quality and fresh fish.

This example of mine is how I explain the commonly googled list of the “most popular foods believed to cause cancer.”

I will go through this list in the next section, but first I want to explain another aspect of the connection between your nutrition and cancer, and that is the issue of refined sugars and carbohydrates.

There are no specific brand names and no specific foods that will ultimately lead to cancer, however, as a rule of thumb, I always say strive for the healthiest version of what you’re eating.

While you may not be able to make a direct link to cancer, refined sugars definitely play their own role when it comes to causing cancer.

These food products that are just pumped full of sugar to make them more attractive, one might argue, to make them more addictive.

The link there to cancer is that if you know that there are foods loaded with sugar, it tends to lead to higher incidence of obesity, it tends to lead to higher incidence of diabetes.

“Sugar help cancer cells to grow. While there may be no direct link, studies have shown that diets that completely eradicate sugar may slow down or control the rate of cancer growth in patients.”

One of the biggest things that I would highlight is that one of the proposed ways to decrease the risk of cancer is to switch to a keto diet which include no possibility of sugar and no possibility of refined carbohydrates.

That has been proposed in some circles as a way to actually improve cancer survival, as a way to improve treatment response to the management of cancer, so I’m not sure if there is a direct link to prevent cancer, but it is proven that sugar affects how well cancer cells may grow and multiply.

Linking back to the study I was talking about, which outlines how our diet is leading to negative outcomes in our health, we can’t ignore the fact that obesity is on the rise. There’s more education and more understanding around it every day, yet people still find it difficult to cut out unhealthy habits and replace them with better ones.

It's like smoking, I don’t think that there’s anyone you would walk into on the street these days who would argue that smoking is a good idea.

When we get to the bare bones of it, we know that people realize the effects that following a diet filled with refined sugars and carbohydrates will eventually have on their health.

"It’s similar to smoking in the way that despite the fact that we know it’s not good for us, there is an addictive element."

On top of that, today we have companies that are financially incentivised to make sure that we keep eating their products.

We know that obesity is linked to cancer, there are higher rates of obesity in cancer patients and in obese individuals as opposed to not, so again, rather that do a pick list of here’s what’s good and here’s what’s bad, you can make it a lot easier and just say make the healthier choice.


Refined Sugar
It’s hypothesized that refined sugars may play a role in increasing one's risk of cancer.

Refined sugar is also the leading cause of obesity and diabetes which means that the only way to lower our risk for cancer and other chronic health conditions is to lower or eliminate our intake of refined sugars.

The Healthy Change

Switch over to wholefoods where possible, and (if you can) cut out white refined carbohydrates.


Hydrogenated Oils

Hydrogenated oils, like vegetable oil, contain trans fats. Trans fat is considered to be the worst type of fat there is. It’s known to cause cancer, heart disease, and immune system problems.

There is no safe amount of trans fats you can incorporate into your diet, which is why it was officially banned by the FDA in 2015.

Vegetable oils are chemically extracted from their source, chemically treated, and more chemicals are added to change the smell and taste. They’re packed with unhealthy omega-6 fats, which alter the structure of our cell membranes and can cause cancer.

The Healthy Change

Choose olive oil, which has a cardio-protective effect.


Processed Meats

Bacon, hot dogs, sausages, and other processed meats have been shown to increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Hot dogs commonly contain sodium nitrite. The salts in sodium nitrate can cause a chemical reaction, which is known to cause cancer. So try to look for meats free of these nitrites to help reduce your cancer risk.

A sugar molecule found in red meat becomes part of your own cells when consumed. Your body then tries to attack it, resulting in inflammation and a higher risk of cancer risk.

Unlike trans fats, you don’t need to cut out red meat entirely. In fact, grass fed organic beef contains something called conjugated linoleic acids, which can fight against certain cancers.

The Healthy Change

You don’t need to cut out all meat. Moderation is important in everything we do but the answer here is to eat grass fed meats, eat lean cuts. Avoid meats that have been pumped with steroids or artificially raised.


Farmed Salmon

Should you decide to cut down on red and processed meat, you might find yourself eating more salmon, do your best to eat fresh fish.

The Healthy Change

Go for wild caught fish, but equally important, understand how your fish has been cooked. Choose grilled or baked over battered or fried.


Genetically Modified Foods

More and more genetically modified crops are making their way into our food. Over 90% of our corn and soy are now genetically modified.

There are some claims that genetically modified foods may have an impact on cancer risk, though more research is necessary to confirm this.

The Healthy Change

Shop organic where possible.


Diet Foods

If you see buzzwords like “diet”, “low-fat”, “fat-free”, or "sugar-free” then those missing items are likely to be replaced with harmful chemicals. Diet foods are loaded with artificial sweeteners, artificial colours and flavours, and more.

The Healthy Change

Choosing the regular version of these foods in moderation is a better option than the diet counterparts.


Canned Foods

Most canned food containers are lined with a product called BPA, which has been shown to genetically alter the brain cells of rats. Many plastic goods, thermal paper, water lines, and many dental composites also contain BPA.

The Healthy Change

Stick to fresh or frozen vegetables that have no added ingredients for your family’s table! These are better for you and available year-round.

Again, one of the most important things to mention is that you need to change your overall approach to nutrition if you want to see a positive impact on your health over time.

A poor diet filled with refined sugars and carbohydrates may lead to a higher risk of obesity and diabetes which is linked to all sorts of different diseases including a higher risk of cancer.

While there are no “dos and don’ts” when it comes to cancer, you can rest assured that living the best healthy life you can in general will lead to better health outcomes down the line.

If you have health concerns or want to talk about your symptoms, you can contact us directly via live chat with a member of our medical team.

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Written by Dr. Robert Mordkin | Edited by Hannah Kingston