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Diet and cancer

Learn more about your diet and how it can raise or lower your risk of developing cancer.

Note: There are links to external websites on this page. The Irish Cancer Society is not responsible for the contents of external websites.

An unhealthy diet increases your risk of cancer

The food and drink that you consume regularly make up your diet. It is hard to study the effects of diet on cancer because your diet includes foods that may protect you against cancer and foods that may increase your risk of cancer. The genes you inherit can also affect the way your diet influences your cancer risk.

Researchers have to carry out very large studies to see which specific foods influence our risk of cancer. Many of these studies are ongoing and are starting to provide us with clearer answers.

Looking at current scientific evidence, it is reasonable to link parts of our diet with cancer of the bowel, breast, mouth, oesophagus (foodpipe) and stomach

Eat your way to good health

Your diet has a powerful effect on your health, including your chance of getting cancer. But we don’t blame you if you feel confused by all the different messages you hear about what to eat and what not to eat. When all is said and done, you can reduce your risk of cancer by eating a healthy, balanced diet. This means that your diet is:  

  • Rich in fruit and vegetables
  • High in fibre
  • Low in red and processed meat, saturated fat and salt

You can start to eat your way to good health at any time, from childhood to old age. No matter when you start, you will begin to be healthier. And eating your way to good health doesn’t just protect you against cancer and other diseases. It will also provide you with lots more energy and the key ingredients for looking and feeling great at any age.

The five fundamentals of healthy eating

The five fundamentals of healthy eating will set you on the right path to reducing your cancer risk and eating your way to good health. It is also important to remember that a healthy diet will help you to maintain a healthy body weight, which can itself reduce the risk of many cancers.

The five fundamentals of healthy eating are:

  1. Go bananas for fruit and veg
  2. Fill up on fibre
  3. Red alert on red and processed meat
  4. Think before you chew the fat
  5. Don’t take it with a pinch of salt

Click here for much more information on the five fundamentals of healthy eating

Look at the label

Be careful when reading claims on food packaging as they can be misleading. For example, ‘light’ or ‘reduced fat’ food may have less fat than a similar product but they can still be high in fat or sugar. Looking carefully at food labels can help you to make better choices. Safefood has produced this booklet of guidelines to help you (pdf, 233KB).

Dietary supplements and ‘superfoods’

The best source of nourishment is food and drink, not dietary supplements. You can get all the nutrients you need from a healthy, balanced diet. Unless your doctor or dietician suggests supplements, you do not need them.

Likewise, there are often stories in the media about specific foods or so-called ‘superfoods’ that are meant to be particularly good for us. But you should not rely on superfoods to reduce your risk of cancer. Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet.

Healthy recipes

101 Square Meals

101 Square Meals is a low-cost, healthy-eating cookery book supported by MABS, Safefood and the HSE. You can:

Further information on healthy eating

The HSE and the Department of Health and Children have produced  The National Health Eating Guidelines, which define the Irish Government recommendations on healthy eating and a balanced diet.  They provide a consistent and evidence-based approach for healthy eating advice https://www.hse.ie/eng/about/who/healthwellbeing/our-priority-programmes/heal/healthy-eating-guidelines/ 

Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute www.indi.ie

For more information

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1800 200 700

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