Cancer is a systemic disease with various causes, some of which include a poor diet, toxin exposure, nutrient deficiencies and to some extent genetics. One extremely important way to prevent and/or treat cancer is nutritionally, through eating a nutrient-dense diet and avoiding things that are known to increase cancer risk. But for many people navigating the modern-day food system often seems overwhelming. Ingredients in ultra-processed foods are being blamed for everything health-related, from cancer and diabetes, to reduced kidney function and bone loss. Only adding to the confusion, sometimes even the way we cook otherwise-healthy foods puts them in the cancer-causing foods category.
Unfortunately, until food manufacturers are forced to clean up the ingredients they use in their products, it’s up to us to avoid the worst kinds. Here, I’m outlining the association between certain cooking techniques, unhealthy ingredients found in processed foods, and the risk for developing cancer. Researchers have known about the dangers associated with some unhealthy habits and cancer-causing foods for decades, while others are just now emerging as possible culprits.
Certainly when it comes to cancer prevention, more research is still needed. But for now, I’ll share the types of foods and ingredients I’d recommend avoiding most, plus tips for how to transition to eating an anti-cancer diet.
What Are Cancer-Causing Foods?
What makes some foods carcinogens (in other words cancer-causing)? Foods that potentially contribute to cancer can include any number of chemicals, pesticides, preservatives and additives. For example, these are some of the factors that cause certain foods to be very unhealthy— not only potentially increasing your risk for cancer, but also causing problems like allergies, leaky gut, obesity and inflammation:
- Pesticides and Herbicides: Industrial farming practices have loaded our produce, air, water, soil and animals at the bottom of the food chain with noxious chemicals. The best way to avoid consuming pesticides is to buy organic and ideally locally-grown foods.
- Animal Products with Hormones and Antibiotics: Conventional meat and dairy products are often produced using antibiotics and hormones which help increase production, but can also cause effects such as estrogen disruption once consumed. Don’t be fooled by “natural” or “free-range” labels, which don’t always say much about how food is produced. Buy pasture-fed, locally raised animal products that are labeled as hormone and antibiotic-free.
- Added Sugar & Artificial Sweeteners: Recently studies have linked higher sugar diets to increased risk for certain types of cancer. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharine and sucralose may generate damaging free radicals in the body. High fructose corn syrup, although manufacturers refer to it as a “natural” sweetener, is highly processed, artificial and capable of contributing to obesity and yeast growth, among other negative health effects.
- Food Additives: Nitrates, sulfites, food dyes and coloring and MSG have all been linked to free radical damage in the body. The best way to avoid these is to stay away from products that contain unknown and unpronounceable ingredients.
- Pasteurization: It’s not just milk that is pasteurized (heated to very high heats) in order to kill bacteria. Yogurts, fruit juices, and many of the foods in our grocery stores have been treated with a high heat process that destroys nutrients and generates free radicals in the body. Pasteurization is used as a substitute for proper sanitation and to unnaturally prolong the shelf life of foods.There isn’t much evidence directly linking pasteurization to cancer, but pasteurized foods can still be problematic when it comes to increasing inflammation and gut-related problems.
Here are examples of some cancer-causing foods you might not realize are in your diet:
1. Processed Meats
While quality meats, fish and dairy products can be included in an anti-cancer diet, processed meats are definitely something to avoid. The American Cancer Society states on their website that “The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified processed meat as a carcinogen, something that causes cancer. And it has classified red meat as a probable carcinogen, or something that probably causes cancer.” (1) A recent meta-analysis of 800 studies found evidence that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day (equal to about 4 strips of bacon or one hot dog) increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
Processed meats are those that have been treated, altered or preserved to improve taste and prolong freshness. They can contain additives such as nitrates and tend to be very high in sodium. A clue that is a meat is processed is if it’s been prepared in any of the following ways: salting, curing, smoking. Examples of processed meats include hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, and some deli meats/cold-cuts. (2)
2. Fried, Burnt & Overly-Cooked Foods
In early 2017, Britain’s Food Standards Agency launched a campaign to help people better understand, and to avoid, the toxin called acrylamide. Acrylamide is found in things like cigarette smoke and is also used in industrial processes like making dyes and plastics. What’s surprising is that acrylamide is also a chemical that forms on certain foods, especially starchy foods like bread, crackers, cakes and potatoes, when they are cooked for long periods at high temperatures. (3)
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen” based on data showing it can increase the risk of some types of cancer in lab animals. (4) Acrylamide is mainly found in highly-cooked plant foods like potato and grain products, such as French fries, potato chips, and to some extent coffee. The chemical reaction occurs when certain starchy foods are cooked above about 250° F. This causes sugars and the amino acid asparagine to create acrylamide. Note: Acrylamide does not form (or forms at lower levels) in dairy, meat, and fish products.
3. Added Sugar
Sugar can do more than increase your calorie intake and contribute to an expanding waistline— high consumption of added sugar has also been associated with increased cancer risk. There’s evidence that added sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup, may increase the risk of esophageal cancer, small intestine cancer, colon cancer and breast cancer. (5, 6, 7) A number fo studies have found that sugar not only contributes to problems like obesity and diabetes, but is also linked to increased growth of tumors and metastasis.
Here’s another reason to avoid too much sugar: studies have found that people getting 17 to 21 percent of calories from added sugar face a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to those who got just 8 percent of their calories from sugar. (8)
4. Foods High In Additives
A 2016 study published in Cancer Research discovered a link between common food additives and colon cancer. Researchers at Georgia State University’s Institute for Biomedical Sciences found that mice that regularly ingested the dietary emulsifiers called polysorbate-80 and carboxymethylcellulose experienced exacerbated tumor development and increased, low-grade inflammation and colon carcinogenesis. (9)
These emulsifiers act as “detergent-like” ingredients in the gut, significantly changing the species composition of the gut microbiome. Alterations in bacterial species can result in bacteria expressing more flagellins and lipopolysaccharides; in other words, changes in the microbiome can interfere with functions of the immune system, promote inflammation and increase harmful gene expressions. What types of processed foods and products contain these emulsifiers? Examples include dairy products such as ice cream, creamy beauty products, toothpaste, mouthwash, laxatives, diet pills, water-based paints, detergents and even vaccines.
5. Rice Products
Drinking water contaminated with arsenic can increase a person’s risk of lung, skin and bladder cancers. That’s why there are clear limits set for the amount of arsenic allowed in water. But what about the arsenic present in the food supply? Turns out, most Americans get more arsenic from the foods in their diet than from the water they drink. So is arsenic poisoning from foods like rice something you need to consider?
While babies potentially face the highest risk, excess arsenic isn’t good for any of us. A 2012 Consumer Reports investigation found arsenic in every brand of infant rice cereals it tested – nearly ten times the legal limit for drinking water! Subsequent testing was even more dire: just one serving of infant rice cereal can put children over the weekly maximum advised by Consumer Reports. (10)
According to the The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) website, “Heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead are naturally present in water and soil. In some places, intense concentrations exist as a result of industrial pollution and decades of agricultural use of lead- and arsenic-based pesticides.” (11) Organizations like the EWG and the World Health Organization now recommend limiting consumption of rice and rice-based foods (including those containing rice flour) when possible and instead eat a varied diet of healthy lower-arsenic grains and sweeteners.
How To Eat An Anti-Cancer Diet
In regards to some of the cancer-causing foods mentioned above, such as processed meats and fried foods, below you’ll find suggestions for safer solutions you can incorporate into your diet instead. I’ll also explain other ways to improve your body’s ability to detoxify, and list the top cancer-fighting foods.
1. Lower Your Toxin Load
An anti-cancer diet consists of:
- Lowering your toxin intake.
- Supporting the body’s cleansing and detoxifying processes.
- Eating healthy and nutrient-rich foods to support all of your body’s functions.
First and foremost, you can take these steps to reduce or eliminate the following products and substances from your life in order to halt toxin accumulation and reduce free radical, cellular damage:
- Electromagnetic Waves: Cell phones, TV’s, computer screens, microwaves—even the wiring in our homes and basic appliances emit constant electromagnetic frequencies or EMF’s that disturb the bioelectrical functioning of our bodies. Cell phone use has been linked to a host of cancer-promoting processes. Limit your exposure by getting rid of your microwave, as it is your largest source for EMF’s, and making use of headphones with your cell phone.
- Commercial Health and Beauty Products: The things we put in our mouths and use on our skin or hair, such as commercial shampoos, makeup and cleansing products, are often loaded with potential carcinogens. Visit the Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep database to look-up your favorite products and determine if you should switch to another brand.
- Household Cleaners: Indoor environments are often concentrated sources of pollution. Lower your toxin load by switching to natural cleaners or making your own instead of using products that are filled with chemicals.
- Unnecessary Medications: All medications pass through and burden the liver. High use of acetaminophen is rapidly overtaking alcohol as the number one cause of liver disease. Work with your physician to lessen the amount of medications you are taking.
- Plastics: Compounds in plastic containers, plastic wraps, the lining of metal cans, and paperboard containers can all leach compounds that disrupt the neuroendocrine system. This is especially true when plastic is heated, which is why it’s smart not to microwave plastic containers, store very hot food in plastic, or leave plastic water bottles anywhere where they will become very hot (such as in your car).
You may also want to periodically try fasting to help with detoxification. Even if you eat healthy foods regularly, environmental toxins bombard you at all turns. The organs that are responsible for detoxification and elimination–the skin, respiratory system, kidney, liver and digestive tract–often get overburdened and re-circulate toxins in the bloodstream. Practicing a cleanse or detox every few months can help these organs “catch up” and dispose of toxins stored in cells and tissue. Colon and liver cleanses can be accomplished with a variety of herbs, green drinks and easily digested whole foods such as juiced vegetables or those that are lightly steamed.
2. Drink Clean Water
Our drinking (tap) water can contain hundreds of unregulated substances, from pesticides and heavy metals to hormones and other pollutants. Bottled water is even less regulated, which means it’s not necessarily a good alternative. Your best bet is buying a filter that can be used as home to remove chlorine, fluoride and other pollutants from the water you drink and cook with.
3. Cook Foods At Lower Temperatures & Avoid Burnt Food
- Don’t fry your foods! Greatly reduce the amount of fast food, french fries, chips, cakes, cereals and crackers you eat.
- It’s virtually impossible to completely eliminate acrylamide that can accumulate on fried foods. But eating a balanced diet mostly free of processed foods and avoiding a high-starch diet can greatly reduce acrylamide levels.
- Frying, baking, broiling or roasting are more likely to create acrylamide. On the other hand, boiling and steaming appear less likely to do so. Longer cooking times and cooking at higher temperatures can increase the amount of acrylamide in foods further. (12)
- Don’t store potatoes in the refrigerator. That can cause acrylamide levels to surge. If you’re planning on cooking potatoes at higher temperatures, soak the cut-up spuds first. Soaking in water for 2 hours before high-temp cooking can reduce acrylamide levels by nearly 50 percent. Even a simple 30-second rinse can slash acrylamide levels by 20-plus percent. (13)
I don’t eat much bread, but when I do eat an occasional sandwich or toast, I make sure it’s made with sprouted bread, such as Ezekiel bread. Additionally, I definitely avoid over-toasting or burning the bread! The Food Standards Agency says as a general rule of thumb, aim for a golden yellow color or lighter when toasting, roasting, frying or baking.
4. Avoid Processed Grains & Added Sugar
Our bodies make best use of food in its natural state, which is why added sugar or processed/refined grains are difficult to break down and can cause gut trouble. The more processed and altered that a food is, the more unnatural and harmful it becomes. Refined sugar, wheat flour, boxed pastas, frozen dinners, powdered cheese and heat-treated vegetable oils—these processed foods are at the heart of a whole host of diseases and disorders.
Wheat, soy and corn products are highly subsidized by the US government, making them very cheap and widely available for production of highly processed and refined products. Food allergies associated with these foods are subsequently on the rise and can contribute to leaky gut syndrome and improper nutrient absorption. These foods are also often loaded with pesticides, herbicides, GMOs and heavy metals. More and more, the seeds from which they are grown are genetically engineered. The solution? Buy organic, sprouted whole grains and avoid processed soy products.
- Check ingredient labels to be sure you’re not consuming high amounts of added sugar/sweeteners. Brown rice syrup found in some snack bars and non-dairy beverages may contain high arsenic levels.
- Be wary of foods that might seem healthy but are really not, such as low-fat or fat-free foods, dairy-free and gluten-free foods, rice milk and foods containing artificial sweeteners. Many times these foods contain chemical additives in order to replace fat, wheat or dairy ingredients.
- Try working alternative grains like quinoa or buckwheat into some meals, rather than eating lots of bread, instant rice, pasta, cereal, etc.
- Rinse, soak and sprout your grains. Rinse your rice and cook it like pasta to reduce the amount of antinutrients it will provide. According to a Cornell University researcher, rinsing brown rice until the water is clear (usually 5 to 6 washings), and then cooking in a ration of 1 cup of rice to 6 cups of water, can remove 40 to 55 percent of inorganic arsenic in rice. (14, 15) And researchers from the UK found that cooking rice in a coffee pot reduced arsenic by up to 85 percent. (16)
- Consumer Reports testing found that basmati rice grown in California contained the lowest levels of arsenic; all types of rice, except sushi and quick-cooking rice, from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas contained the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in a Consumer Reports testing. (17)
7. Eat More Cancer-Fighting Foods
Your best bet, to combat cancer and a host of other conditions, is to eat real food and to eat lower on the food chain. Research suggests these are some of the top cancer-fighting foods to eat regularly:
- Cruciferous Vegetables: Broccoli sprouts, cabbage and kale are all members of the Brassica or Cruciferous family. Studies has found that these vegetables are a potent source of antioxidants and studies find them to be powerful weapons against bladder, breast, colon, prostrate, stomach and rectal cancers.
- Foods High in Vitamin A (Beta-carotene): The orange-red plant compounds found in fruits and vegetables are the precursors to Vitamin A, a potent antioxidant that is proving helpful to those with breast and ovarian cancer. Vitamin A is necessary for many bodily functions, especially the immune system. It has proven to be effective in battling breast cancer and head and neck tumors. Vitamin A may also be helpful for battling skin, cervical, colorectal, esophageal, ovarian, pancreatic and stomach cancers. Foods that supply vitamin A include liver, carrots, sweet potato, kale, spinach, grass-fed butter, eggs and winter squash.
- Foods High in Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid): Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant the aids the immune system. It has proven effective (in whole food form—not supplements) against bladder, breast and mouth cancers. Foods high in vitamin C include berries, peppers, oranges, papaya, guava, broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, peas and cauliflower.
- Garlic: Allium vegetables such as garlic, onions and chives have antibacterial properties, DNA-defense and cancer-halting processes that seem to work against breast, colon, esophageal, rectal and stomach cancers.
- Green tea and Oolong tea: The polyphenols in green tea are powerful antioxidants that have been found to destroy leukemic cells in lab cultures. They seem to recognize and halt the proliferation of abnormal cells. Oolong tea also contains theophyllines and theobromines (also in green tea) that reduce the risk of many cancers
- Olive Oil: Olive oil contains phytonutrients that seem to reduce inflammation in the body. It may reduce the risk of breast and colorectal cancers.
- Calcium Foods: Calcium, particularly when combined with Vitamin D3 form, may reduce the incidence of cancer by 35 to 60 percent. Calcium seems to be especially beneficial for preventing cancer and rectal cancers. (17) Some studies have also found that it helps reduce breast cancer and ovarian cancer risk. Sunlight exposure and marine oils such as cod liver oil or krill oil are great sources of vitamin D that help with calcium absorption. Calcium should ideally be obtained from foods like organic dairy products (I recommend raw dairy if possible), leafy greens, almonds, beans and fish. In some cases supplementing can also be helpful, but isn’t usually recommended for all adults.
You should also replace processed meats with fresh meats and fish. Instead of eating things like deli meats, sausage or hot dogs, purchase fresh, quality meat such as grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken or turkey, and wild-caught fish. To avoid over-eating one type of meat (such as beef or pork) consume a variety of protein foods, both plant based and animal-derived, since each has its benefits.
8. Boost Detoxification With Supplements & Herbs
Some experts recommend drinking alkaline water which you can create by adding lemon or lime juice and/or a few drops of hydrogen peroxide.To help with detoxification you may also want to increase your intake of raw foods and green juices. Although fiber is an important part of digestion, elimination, detoxification and a source of probiotic support—too much fiber can stress a weakened or hyper-reactive immune system. Juicing, steaming and lightly cooking raw foods, using green powders and cutting back on or eliminating whole grains can ease digestion and make many nutrients more readily available.
Eating a healthy diet is number one when it comes to cancer prevention. But there are also certain herbs and supplements that have been shown to help lower inflammation, boost the immune system, and therefore help to decrease cancer risk. These include:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (Omega-3 fatty acid): Omega-3 fatty acids are getting so much attention because the Western diet is so unbalanced with an overabundance of omega-6’s. Omega-3’s have a host of health benefits and research is still underway to validate their benefits in combating cancer.
- Chorella, Blue-green algae and Spirulina: These single-celled animals are a source of Vitamin B12 and bind with heavy metals, helping to eliminate them from the body.
- CLA: Conjugated linoleic acid boosts the immune system and may reduce the risk of developing colon, rectal and breast cancers. (18)
- Coriolus Mushrooms: These disease fighting mushrooms have specific polysaccharides that boost the immune system, reduce tumor growth and combat cancer. (19)
- Folate/Vitamin B9: Folate (vitamin B9) is crucial to DNA production and has been found to be effective against breast, colorectal and pancreatic cancers.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate our sleep and waking cycles. This hormone’s levels are closely linked to immune system function. Getting at least 8 hours of sleep and reducing stress will boost your melatonin levels.
Precautions regarding An Anti-Cancer Diet
The quality of your diet is undoubtably linked to your overall health and ability to prevent cancer. However other factors are also important for cancer-prevention, such as exercising, avoiding medication and toxin exposure, not smoking or consuming too much alcohol, sleeping well and controlling stress. A variety of foods can be included in an anti-cancer diet, and your diet doesn’t need to be “perfect” to be healthy. Start by making one or two changes at a time to your diet, removing foods that you consume a lot of but that are known to increase cancer risk.
Final Thoughts on Cancer-Causing Foods
- Cancer-causing foods include those that contain pesticides, additives, added sugar or artificial sweeteners, processed meats, burnt foods, fried foods and other chemicals.
- Examples of cancer-causing foods and ingredients are: french fries, hot dogs, deli meats, sausage, ice cream, refined rice and other gains, high fructose corn syrup, processed vegetable oils, and trans-fats.
- To follow an anti-cancer diet lower your toxin intake, support the body’s cleansing and detoxifying processes, and eat unprocessed nutrient-rich foods.
Read Next: 21 Health Foods You Should Never Eat
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