Eat this, not that by cancer type: How your cancer may determine your diet

A female reviewing healthy recipes on a tablet in front of a kitchen counter topped with colorful vegetables
Learn what foods to eat, and what to limit or avoid, based on the type of cancer you have.

Doctors often recommend specific diets for patients, depending on their medical condition—more fiber and less red meat for those with heart disease, low-sugar foods for diabetics and a gluten-free diet for celiac disease sufferers, for example. But did you know that the same may be true for certain cancer patients? While a healthy diet looks much the same before cancer as it does after—lean proteins, plenty of fruits and veggies, and lots of water—cancer experts have developed nutritional guidelines tailored specifically for patients with certain cancers.

Everyone, whether you have cancer or not, should avoid or limit processed meats that have been smoked, cured or salted—cold cuts, ham, sausage, bacon and hot dogs. Laboratory studies have shown that nitrates and nitrites, which are commonly added as a preservative to processed meats, may form compounds that are associated with cancer.” - Carolyn Lammersfeld, MBA, MS, RD, CSO, LD, Vice President of Integrative Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). 

Cancer patients, regardless of the type of malignancy they have, should also avoid alcohol. “Alcohol contains ethanol, which is a carcinogen that may lead to DNA damage,” Lammersfeld says. “Even one drink per day for women may increase the risk of breast cancer. The reason isn’t completely clear, other than alcohol contains ethanol, which may raise circulating levels of estrogen and interactions between alcohol, nutrients and genes.” For cancer patients who are not in active treatment, Lammersfeld says men should limit alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day, while women should have no more than one per day. A drink is defined as a 12-ounce beer, a five-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.

Depending on your cancer type, consider the dietary recommendations below to help reduce potential treatment-related side effects while also helping to improve your quality of life chances of better outcomes.

Breast cancer

A strong link has been established between breast cancer and excess body fat, which may increase the production of estrogen and insulin, causing chronic, low-level inflammation, which may damage DNA and allow cancer cells to develop.

Eat less of this:

  • Saturated fats, including high-fat meat, poultry with skin, butter, coconut, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, lard and full-fat dairy products such as milk, cheese and ice cream
  • Alcohol, which is associated with an increased risk of cancer and recurrence
  • Sugary drinks

Eat more of this:

  • Fiber, including bran, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans (at least 21 grams a day or four to six servings daily of beans and/or legumes, nine servings of veggies and fruits daily with a variety of colors) to help you feel full; reduce exposure to harmful substances through elimination and potentially help with weight management.
  • Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale, because they contain sulforaphanes, which may help with detoxification of carcinogens and prevent tumor growth.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, in food (three to four ounces or ¾ cup flaked fish twice a week of fish, such as salmon, halibut, tuna, mackerel, anchovies herring or sardines).  Those with heart disease or high triglycerides, may want to talk with their physician about taking a daily supplement.

Endometrial/uterine cancers

Women with these cancers should eat a plant-based diet, try to maintain a healthy weight and get in at least two-and-a-half hours of physical activity a week.

Eat less of this:

  • Saturated fats, found in such foods as full-fat dairy, lard, butter, cream, cheese, lamb, pork, poultry with skin and fatty beef
  • High-fat dairy, because it is high in saturated fats and higher in calories than lower fat options
  • Foods high in glycemic load like sugary drinks and processed foods, since diets with a high glycemic load have been associated with risk of endometrial cancer

Eat more of this:

  • Non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, peppers and carrots
  • Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and oats
  • Legumes, such as beans, peas and peanuts, as a meat substitute and a good source of fiber and phytochemicals
  • A variety of fruits for natural sweetness to help with reducing sugary beverages and processed foods
  • Whole fruit rather than juice

Colorectal cancer

Patients with this cancer should maintain a healthy body weight and remain active, because excess body weight is the biggest risk factor for this disease.

Eat less of this:

  • Red and processed meats
  • Alcohol
  • Sugary beverages and processed foods, which may make it more difficult to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.  

Eat more of this:

  • Whole-grains foods with fiber (21-38 grams a day) to help with regular bowel movements and to help eliminate harmful substances
  • Calcium (1,000 mg to 1,200 mg a day), either by eating a calcium-rich diet (one cup of low-fat milk has 300 mg of calcium), or by using supplements, or with a combination of food and supplements.
  • Vitamin D, which may help with cell growth and immune function (600 IU a day for adults younger than 70 and 800 IU a day for adults older than 70; food sources include fatty fish like salmon, tuna and sardines; low-fat milk and yogurt and eggs, though many people need supplemental vitamin D in addition to food)

Esophageal cancer

Patients with this cancer should maintain a healthy diet, since excess body weight has been associated with a higher risk of esophageal cancer. Regular exercise may also help lower the risk.

Avoid this:

  • Alcohol, because it has been associated with an increased risk of this cancer
  • Processed meats

Eat more of this:

  • Fruits and vegetables (five to nine servings a day), mixing up the diet with carotenoids (carrots, sweet potato, cantaloupe, apricots and spinach), citrus (oranges, grapefruit and other fruits high in vitamin C), allium vegetables (garlic, scallions, Chinese chives, onions) and leafy greens (spinach collards, kale, swiss chard, turnip and mustard greens)