Eat Healthy

We could prevent about 810 cases of cancer in Alberta each year – if we support each other to eat better.

Which foods are linked to cancer?

Eating a balanced diet is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. Studies show that our diet can increase or decrease our risk of developing certain cancers.

Experts in Alberta recently found that about 30% of colorectal cancer cases in Alberta are linked to not eating healthy1
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While we need more research to fully understand the connection between cancer and the large variety of foods we eat, there is evidence that links the following foods to cancer risk:

Not enough fruits and vegetables

There is growing evidence that not eating enough fruits and vegetables contributes to many types of cancer. A study in Alberta found that each year, not eating enough fruits and vegetables is linked to about:

  • 25% of new cases of oral cancer (92 cases)
  • 40% of new cases of esophageal cancer (73 cases)
  • 3% of new cases of lung cancer (64 cases)
  • 19% of new cases of stomach cancer (47 cases)
  • 18% of new cases of laryngeal cancer (14 cases)

Overall, not eating enough fruits and vegetables accounts for about 2% of all new cancer cases in Alberta.

Not enough fibre

Not eating enough fibre increases the risk of colorectal cancer. About 1,960 adults were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in Alberta in 2012. Not eating enough fibre is linked to about 6% of new cases.

Too much red meat and processed meat

Many studies have found a link between eating a lot of red meat (e.g. pork, beef and lamb) and eating processed meats (e.g. ham, bacon, salami, and sausage) and developing colorectal cancer.

About 1,960 adults were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in Alberta in 2012. Eating too much red meat is linked to about 180 cases (9%) and eating processed meat is linked to another 54 cases (3%).

Too much salt

Eating too much salt increases the risk of stomach cancer. In 2012, about 240 adults in Alberta were diagnosed with stomach cancer. Eating too much salt was linked to about 12% of new cases.

How does eating healthy help reduce my risk of cancer?

A healthy diet includes a balanced mix of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and protein sources such as meat or meat alternatives. A healthy diet has direct and indirect benefits in preventing cancer:

  • Fruits and vegetables contain a wide variety of nutrients that have many different effects on the body. These nutrients include carotenoids, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, flavonoids and other phytochemicals (chemicals found in plants). Some of these may help reduce the risk of cancer by doing things like:
    • Mopping up harmful chemicals that could damage DNA
    • Helping protect against DNA damage
    • Helping with repairing DNA
    • Blocking the formation of cancer-causing chemicals
    • Stimulating the immune system
  • Fibre increases the size of stools, dilutes their contents and helps people have more frequent bowel movements. This reduces the contact time between the bowel and harmful chemicals in the stools. Fibre may also help gut bacteria produce helpful chemicals that change the conditions in the bowel. All of these things help to reduce the risk of cancer.
  • Scientists aren’t sure exactly how red meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer, but they have some ideas.
  • Red meat contains a pigment called haem. Haem can irritate the bowels or increase the production of harmful bacteria, both of which can increase the risk of cancer.
  • Cooking meat at high temperatures can result in the formation of certain harmful chemicals called heterocyclic amines.
  • Processed meats often contain nitrates and nitrites. Nitrates and nitrites both get converted into nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are known to increase the risk of cancer.
  • Too much salt in the diet can damage the stomach lining and make it more susceptible to cancer causing agents.
  • Eating a healthy and balanced diet also helps maintain a healthy body weight. For more information about how maintaining a healthy body weight protects against cancer, go to our Maintain a Healthy Weight section.

Learn what your BMI is here

The BMI calculator below is for adults aged 18 and older. Here is how to interpret your BMI:

  • Underweight (BMI less than 18.5)
  • Healthy weight (BMI 18.5 to 24.9)
  • Overweight (BMI 25 to 29.9)
  • Overweight (BMI 25 to 29.9)
  • Healthy weight (BMI 18.5 to 24.9)
  • Obese (BMI 30 and over)

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How Can I Start Eating Healthier?

Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, & pulses such as beans. Canada’s Food Guide recommends:

  • Adult men and women should eat 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Here are some examples of one serving:
    • ½ cup of cooked vegetables
    • One cup of raw vegetables
    • One medium sized piece of fruit
  • Choose fruits and vegetables that are prepared with little or no added fat, salt or sugar
  • Choose grain products that are low in fat, sugar and salt

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF)2 recommends eating relatively unprocessed grains with every meal.

You don’t have to give up red meat completely to lower your risk of cancer.

  • Red meat can be an important source of protein and an excellent source of iron and zinc.
  • The WCRF1 recommends eating no more than 500 g of red meat per week, with very little processed meat. And Canada’s Food Guide suggests that as often as possible, choose beans, lentils and soy products as meat alternatives.

    Avoid salty foods and foods preserved with salt.

  • Health Canada recommends anyone over the age of 14 years get no more than 2300 mg per day.

What else can eating healthy help me with?

The benefits of a healthy diet build over your lifetime. Eating healthy at any age can greatly improve health and reduce your risk of cancer. Healthy eating also lowers your risk of many other health conditions that are important to Albertans, like:

  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Osteoporosis

Eating healthy can help in many other ways such as:

  • Boosting your mood
  • Making you feel more energetic
  • Strengthening your immune system