Cancer is recognized worldwide to be a major health problem affecting millions of people each year. More than 1.9 million people in the U.S. alone were diagnosed with cancer in 2022. The good new is there are certain foods — so-called cancer-fighting foods — that can help combat cancer.
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 full of cancer-fighting foods and avoiding things that are known to increase cancer risk.
But for many people navigating the modern-day food system often seems overwhelming. Ingredients found 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 while not consuming enough cancer-fighting foods.
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 and to choose cancer-fighting foods. Today, the early combination of chemotherapy and nutrition therapy is able to save the lives of thousands of cancer patients.
This duel approach can help support the entire body and mind in the healing process, which sometimes be long and very difficult. Certainly when it comes to cancer prevention, more research is still needed. But for now, here are tips for how to transition to eating an anti-cancer diet full of cancer-fighting foods.
Are You Eating Enough Cancer-Fighting Foods?
While we often think of the word “cancer” as one type of disease, this term actually encompasses over 100 different cellular disorders in the body. Cancer refers to uncontrolled cell division that leads to a tumor or abnormal cell growth. When abnormal cells divide without control, they can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body, including the blood and lymphatic systems.
It can help to consume plenty of cancer-fighting foods with antioxidants and natural anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. This means avoiding packaged and processed foods and focusing on only those that do not contain antibiotics, chemicals or toxins. Buying foods that are organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised and additive-free can greatly lower the toxic load of your diet.
Findings from the 2010 European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) that looked at dietary factors associated with higher cancer risks showed that there’s significant associations between cancer risk and low intakes of certain nutrients. Data from the investigation that was published in the European Journal of Cancer showed an inverse association between higher intakes of vitamin C, carotenoids, retinol, α-tocopherol and fiber with overall cancer risk.
After following over 519,978 participants living in 10 European nations, results showed that those who most closely followed a style of eating similar to the Mediterranean diet had the most protection against cancer. High intake of cancer-fighting foods like vegetables, fruit, fish, calcium-rich foods and fiber was associated with a decreased risk of colorectal, lung and breast cancers, while red and processed meat intake, alcohol intake, unhealthy body mass index (BMI), and abdominal obesity were associated with an increased risk.
Being physically active and obtaining enough vitamin D also helped lower cancer susceptibility.
Top Cancer-Fighting Foods
1. Leafy Green Vegetables
Leafy greens are the cornerstone of any healthy diet since they’re exceptionally rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes, yet very low in calories, fats, sodium and other toxins. Leafy greens of all kinds — spinach, kale, collard greens, romaine, arugula salad, watercress, etc. — are rich in antioxidants known to combat cancer, including vitamin C and beta-carotene (a type of vitamin A).
And the benefits keep coming; as natural sources of glucosinolates, they also contain antibacterial and antiviral properties, inactivate carcinogens, help reprogram cancer cells to die off, and prevent tumor formation and metastasis. These powerhouse chemicals are known to break down during the chewing and digestion process into biologically active compounds that prevent cancer cells growth, which are referred to as indoles, thiocyanates and isothiocyanates.
2. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables are known to be cancer fighters and some of the best vitamin C foods widely available. Many are rich in glutathione, known as the body’s “master antioxidant” since it has high free-radical-scavenging abilities.
Nearly all members of the brassica family of cruciferous vegetables are nutrient-dense sources of a family of phytochemicals called isothiocyanates that are linked to cancer prevention. In addition to isothiocyanates, cruciferous veggies like cabbage and broccoli also contain sulforaphanes and indoles — two types of strong antioxidants and stimulators of detoxifying enzymes that protect the structure of DNA.
Add one or two kinds — including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage or Brussels sprouts — to three mostly plant-based meals daily in the form of roasted veggies, soups or stir fries, or dip them into hummus or Greek yogurt for a healthy, fast snack.
The ORAC scores of nearly all berries are very high, making them some of the top high-antioxidant foods in the world. Blueberries, raspberries, cherries, strawberries, goji berries, camu camu and blackberries are easy to find and use in numerous types of recipes — which is good news considering they supply vitamin C, vitamin A and gallic acid, a powerful antifungal/antiviral agent that increases immunity.
Berries are especially rich in proanthocyanidin antioxidants, which have been observed to have anti-aging properties in several animal studies and are capable of lowering free radical damage. High amounts of phenols, zeaxanthin, lycopene, cryptoxanthin, lutein and polysaccharides are other berry benefits.
Less familiar “superberries” mulberry, camu camu and goji berries have been used in traditional Chinese medicine since around 200 B.C. to increase immunity and energy, so look for those in powder or dried form in health food stores and online.
4. Brightly Orange-Colored Fruits and Veggies
Brightly colored pigments found in plant foods are a sure sign that they’re beaming with phytochemicals, especially carotenoid antioxidants. This is exactly the reason you want to “eat the rainbow” and vary the colors of the foods on your plate.
Carotenoids (alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, cryptoxanthin, etc.) are derivatives of vitamin A found in many citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, berries, pumpkin, squashes and other plant foods. One of the most researched is beta-carotene, an essential nutrient for immune functioning, detoxification, liver health, and fighting cancers of the skin, eyes and organs.
Two nutrients that give these foods their signature dark hues include lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to help prevent eye and skin-related disorders since they act as antioxidants that filter harmful high-energy blue wavelengths, protecting healthy cells in the process.
When it comes to carbohydrate-rich veggies, studies show that complex carbs, including sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, other tubers and whole-grain foods, is related to a reduced risk of several types of cancer, particularly of the upper digestive tract. This is likely due to a favorable role of fiber, but the issue is still open to discussion. In contrast, refined grain intake and high glycemic load foods are not apart of an anti-cancer diet. These have been associated with increased risk of different types of cancer, including breast and colorectal.
A molecular compound found in colorful, spicy peppers, capsaicin is a top cancer-fighting food and is found to have positive effects on shrinking tumors, preventing metastasis (new tumors found away from the original cancer site), causing apoptosis in various cancer models and even potentially preventing cancer from occurring in the first place.
5. Fresh Herbs and Spices
Turmeric, which contains the active ingredient curcumin, is one of the most powerful ingredients in an anti-cancer diet because it’s been shown to decrease tumor size and fight colon and breast cancer.
Along with easy-to-use black pepper, turmeric absorption is enhanced and better able to fight inflammation. Aim for one teaspoon of turmeric powder and 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper or more daily, which can easily be used in a tonic drink, with eggs or in a veggie stir fry. You can also take curcumin supplements; aim for 1,000 milligrams daily.
Meanwhile, the seeds of the cilantro plant, called coriander, possess anti-inflammatory properties that may play a role in disease and even cancer. Ashwagandha benefits include its ability to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells.
Perhaps most striking is the Chinese root spice galangal, suggested by a growing body of scientific research, is its ability to fight and potentially prevent a broad number of cancers and tumors. (See our list of healing herbs and spices.)
6. Organic Meats
Organic meats including beef or chicken liver are recommended on many cancer-fighting diets since they’re considered some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet and extremely high in vitamin B12. Consuming organic meats as part of a “nose to tail” approach to eating animal proteins provides minerals that help cleanse the liver and enhance the ability to remove toxins from the blood and digestive tract.
Detoxifying with rich sources of selenium, zinc and B vitamins helps purify blood; produce the bile needed to digest fats; balance hormones naturally; and store essential vitamins, minerals and iron. These mineral-rich foods can help counteract the effects of alcohol, prescription drugs, hormone disruptions, high triglyceride levels, low potassium, obesity and viral infections.
7. Cultured Dairy Products
Cultured dairy products are a rich source of “good bacteria” probiotics, which are microorganisms that promote a natural bacterial balance in your intestinal microflora and help increase immunity. Over 80 percent of your immune system is housed in your gut, so it’s no surprise that probiotic foods and supplementation can fight cancer and help cells renew.
One of the easiest ways to consume more probiotics is in their most natural state, which includes raw milk products such as cheese, kefir and yogurt. Raw and cultured are key here, since fermentation produces probiotics but high heat processing used to pasteurize dairy can damage many of the vital nutrients, including the enzymes, proteins and probiotics. Most dairy today is loaded with hormones, antibiotics, pain killers and pesticide residue so buying organic is also important.
Aim for six ounces of cultured dairy daily (probiotic yogurt, cottage cheese, goat milk kefir or amasai). Cottage cheese, which is rich in sulfur protein and saturated fats, was found to be especially beneficial as part of the Budwig diet for cancer protocol. You can also increase your probiotic food intake without dairy by consuming cultured vegetables like kimchi, sauerkraut, coconut kefir, kombucha or natto.
Cultured dairy is also a great source of calcium. Calcium, particularly when combined with vitamin D3 form, may reduce the incidence of cancer. Calcium seems to be especially beneficial for preventing cancer and rectal cancers. 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.
8. Nuts and Seeds
Chia is rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid that gives it the potential to act as a cancer-fighting food. One in-vitro study published in the Journal of Molecular Biochemistry found that ALA helped limit the growth of both breast and cervical cancer cells. Researchers also found that it caused cell death of the cancer cells without harming the normal healthy cells in the body.
Meanwhile, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Cancer Research discovered that consuming flaxseeds may defend against breast cancer by decreasing tumor growth.
In addition, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are also beneficial and full of healthy fatty acids. Their health benefits and are best sprouted and can be used easily in smoothies, baked goods and with yogurt. Aim for two tablespoons daily.
It’s a similar story for nuts such as walnuts, Brazil nuts and almonds. Many studies find a link between nut consumption and cancer prevention, including a reduced risk for colon, prostate and breast cancers.
9. Healthy Unrefined Oils
Did you know that your brain and nervous system control the function of your entire body and that about 60 percent of your nervous system is made up of fatty acids? The problem is that many of the conventional processed fats and oils widely consumed today are hydrogenated oils that are capable of destroying the membranes of our cells, leading to diseased cells and toxicity.
Refined and rancid fats create problems throughout your entire body, leading to lower immune function, cell congestion and inflammation that kicks off disease. Replace refined vegetable oils, hydrogenated oils and trans fats with quality oils, including flaxseed oil, extra virgin olive oil, cod oil and coconut oil.
These nourish your gut and promote better immune function, help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, plus flaxseed and cod liver oil contain essential omega-3 fatty acids that can help energize your cells. Olive oil contains phytonutrients that seem to reduce inflammation in the body. It may reduce the risk of breast and colorectal cancers.
Nutritious mushrooms vary in terms of their benefits, taste and appearance since hundreds of mushroom species are in existence today, but all are known to be immune-enhancers and many have been used to fight cancer for centuries.
Reishi, cordyceps and maitake in particular can improve immune function, fight tumor growth and help with cell regeneration. For example, studies have turned up promising results on the link between the reishi mushroom and cancer prevention. It has been successfully used to help fight cancer of the breasts, ovaries, prostate, liver and lungs in in-vitro studies, sometimes in combination with other treatments.
Research in cancer patients suggests that reishi has antiproliferative and chemopreventive effects. It helps alleviate side effects of chemotherapy, like low immunity and nausea, and potentially enhances the efficacy of radiotherapy.
Look for them in capsule or tincture form, and cook with them whole whenever possible, too.
11. Traditional Teas
Metastasis is the most deadly aspect of cancer and results from several connected processes including cell proliferation, angiogenesis, cell adhesion, migration and invasion into the surrounding tissue. Metastasis is the principal cause of death among cancer patients, so it’s one of the most important issues in cancer research today.
Of the few cancer-fighting drinks, green tea is at the top. Green tea contains major polyphenolic compounds, including epigallocatechin-3-gallate, which has been shown to inhibit tumor invasion and angiogenesis, which are essential for tumor growth and metastasis.
Teas derived from the leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis are commonly consumed as beverages around the world, including green, black or oolong tea. While all traditional teas seem to be beneficial, the most significant effects on human health have been attributed to green tea, including matcha green tea. It contains the highest percentage of polyphenolic compounds, catechin, gallocatechin and EGCG.
The antioxidant EGCG appears to be the most potent of all the catechins, and its anticancer effects have activity about 25–100 times more effective than that of vitamins C and E. EGCG has been reported to be linked to the modulation of multiple signaling pathways, finally resulting in the downregulation of expression of proteins involved in the invasiveness of cancer cells.
12. Wild-Caught Fish
According to a study conducted by researchers at the Richerche Institute of Pharmacology, higher fish consumption is another favorable diet indicator of better immune function. The study, which investigated the cancer-fighting effects of the Mediterranean diet, found that people who reported eating less fish and more frequent red meat showed several common neoplasms in their blood that suggested higher susceptibility.
Wild and especially small fish, including salmon, mackerel and sardines are anti-inflammatory omega-3 foods that are correlated with better brain, hormonal and nervous system health. Omega-3 fatty acids exert anti-inflammatory effects, and therefore recent studies have connected them to cancer prevention and natural enhancement of antitumor therapies.
Evidence suggests a role for omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in cancer prevention and reducing symptoms of treatments like chemotherapy. Omega-3s have been shown to preserve muscle mass and function in chemotherapy cancer patients and to contribute to a reduced inflammatory response resulting from the treatment’s toxicity.
People who consume more long-chain omega-3s (DHA and EPA) seem to have a reduced risk of colorectal cancer. After a large number of lab studies found that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in slowing or reversing the growth of hormonal cancers, namely prostate cancer and breast cancer cells, animal and human epidemiological studies have been conducted to see whether this effect occurred in real-life scenarios. However, additional information on this topic is still warranted.
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.
- Cancer-causing foods, as opposed to cancer-fighting 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, get enough vitamin D, upgrade your water and eat unprocessed nutrient-rich foods — in addition to cancer-fighting foods.
- Some of the top cancer-fighting foods include cruciferous veggies, leafy greens, berries, orange and yellow veggies, herbs and spices, cultured dairy products, nuts, seeds and healthy fats like coconut or olive oil.