Some cancer risk factors are modifiable, which means people can increase or decrease their risk by changing their lifestyle, such as their diet. Red meat, alcohol, and highly processed foods are all linked to an increased risk of cancer. Indeed, studies link approximately 42% of cancer cases and 45% of cancer deaths to risk factors that people can change, such as overweight and obesity, physical inactivity and poor diet. .

Some ultra-processed foods and fast foods can increase the risk of developing cancer if a person eats them in large amounts or over long periods of time. Research links processed foods, such as bacon, sausages, packaged snacks, sugary cereals and sodas, to increased cancer risk. Also, red meat and alcohol can contribute to cancer risk if consumed in excess.

This article explains which foods can cause cancer and why. It will also detail healthier food choices that can reduce cancer risk.

Can foods cause cancer?

Certain foods can increase the risk of cancer if people consume them in excess. However, the relationship between food and cancer risk may not be straightforward. For example, certain foods can increase the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, conditions that have been linked to certain types of cancer. Also, some foods, including processed meats, alcohol, and fried foods, contain carcinogens, which are harmful substances that can cause cancer.

Red meats

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies red meat as Group 2A, which means it is “probably carcinogenic” to humans. A carcinogen is a substance that can cause cancer.
Here are some examples of red meat:

  • beef
  • pork
  • lamb
  • sheep
  • calf
  • goat Experts have found strong evidence linking colorectal cancer to eating large amounts of red meat. Evidence also points to an association with pancreatic and prostate cancers. Because of this risk, the World Cancer Research Fund International recommends limiting red meat consumption to three servings per week, for a total cooked weight of 340 to 500g.

Processed meats

Processed meat is meat that manufacturers have preserved by smoking, curing, or salting. Here are some examples:

  • sausages
  • hot dogs
  • salami
  • bacon
  • ham
  • beef jerky

The manufacturing process for these meats often involves nitrites, which can create carcinogens from safe sources. Even smoking meat without chemicals can create polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a type of carcinogen.

The WHO says there is “compelling evidence” that processed meats cause cancer. According to a 2019 study, the consumption of processed meat is an important risk factor for colorectal cancer. Experts also associate it with stomach and breast cancers.


There are many alternatives to processed meats, including fresh, unsmoked fish and chicken. One can also opt for vegan and vegetarian meat alternatives, such as tofu.

processed foods

Processed foods include

  • packaged snacks such as cookies and chips
  • frozen meals
  • sugary cereals
  • sodas
  • spreads
  • sweets such as candy and chocolate
  • fast foods such as pizza, hamburgers and fried chicken.

Manufacturers modify these foods with chemicals such as flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers and other additives to make them taste better and last longer.
Processed foods often contain high levels of salt, sugar, fat, and carcinogenic chemicals. They are also generally low in fiber, vitamins and minerals. A diet high in processed foods can lead to obesity, a risk factor for cancer.


Preparing fresh, homemade meals and snacks from whole foods is the healthiest option. These foods include

  • the fruits
  • the vegetables
  • nuts and seeds
  • whole grains
  • You can also opt for minimally processed products, such as canned beans, frozen vegetables.

Carcinogenic chemicals in food

Carcinogenic chemicals that can be found in food include:

nitrites and nitrates, which manufacturers use to preserve processed meats
butylated hydroxyanisole, a potentially carcinogenic human preservative
potassium bromate, which manufacturers use as a flour additive, although it has toxic and carcinogenic effects.
heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which result from smoking and grilling meat at high temperatures.
Countless other carcinogenic chemicals, such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners and food colorings, can be found in processed foods.


A person can choose to buy organic food, which food producers grow without using pesticides or cancer-causing chemicals. If buying organic foods isn’t possible, using fresh, whole foods to prepare home-cooked meals is the best way to limit exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.


Alcohol is a group 1 carcinogen, which means that there is sufficient evidence of its carcinogenicity. Experts link alcoholTrusted Source to cancers of the:

  • throat
  • esophagus
  • breast
  • liver
  • colon and rectum
  • Alcohol-related cancer risk appears to be dose-dependent for certain types of cancer, meaning the more people drink, the higher their risk.


Foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, such as candy, white bread, pasta, and sugary drinks, may indirectly increase cancer risk. Consuming large amounts of sugar can contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes and chronic inflammation, all of which are risk factors for cancer. Studies suggest that type 2 diabetes increases the risk of ovarian, breast and uterine cancer. Also, a diet high in sugar can raise blood sugar, a risk factor for colorectal cancer.

cancer fighting foods

No single food or diet can prevent cancer, but eating a balanced, nutritious diet can help reduce the risk. People should minimize red and processed meats and foods high in sugar, fat and salt. Instead, they should include the following foods in their diet:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • lean proteins like fish and chicken
  • healthy fats like olive oil and avocado.


Eating certain foods can increase the risk of cancer. You should therefore try to limit your consumption of red and processed meats, processed and fast foods, alcohol and sugar. Instead, prepare fresh, homemade meals and snacks from whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, and low-fat dairy products. A balanced and nutritious diet can also help reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, conditions that increase the risk of developing cancer.

* criptom strives to transmit health knowledge in a language accessible to all. In NO CASE, the information given can not replace the opinion of a health professional.