When you think of lowering your cancer risk, your mind probably goes to quitting smoking, exercising regularly and wearing a sun hat and sunscreen.
But so much of your cancer risk is dependent on other behaviors, too, like how much alcohol you drink and the kinds of food you eat.
Unfortunately, carcinogens are everywhere and hard to avoid.
“My philosophy is you need to manage your exposure to cancer-causing agents or carcinogens. You cannot remove carcinogens from your entire life,” said Dr. Otis Brawley, the associate director of community outreach and engagement at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Part of managing your exposure is understanding what foods contribute to your cancer risk so you can limit your consumption.
Additionally, Dr. Xavier Llor, the medical director of the colorectal cancer prevention program at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven Health, said many of the items he avoids for cancer risk reasons he also avoids for other health reasons, too.
“Really, it’s kind of like most of this stuff is just not good for a variety of reasons,” Llor said. Very few things are bad for one aspect of your health but great for another — for example, many foods carry both a cancer risk and cardiovascular risk, he noted.
Below, cancer doctors share the foods they avoid to help lessen their cancer risk.
Hot Dogs, Sausage, Bacon, Deli Meat And Other Processed Meats
You probably know that processed meats are not a healthy food choice. In fact, Dr. Diane Reidy-Lagunes, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said processed meats are linked to cancer (in addition to conditions like heart disease and diabetes).
“Processed meats include food such as hot dogs, sausage, bacon and others such as deli meats,” Reidy-Lagunes told HuffPost via email. “It is believed that the preservatives, (such [as] nitrates or nitrites) can lead to the formation of potentially cancer-causing chemicals.”
According to Reidy-Lagunes, processed meats are classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization, which is in the same category as tobacco, smoking and asbestos.
“However, it is important to note that this doesn’t mean that the risk of eating processed meat and developing cancer is the same risk as smoking and the development of cancer; the level of risk with smoking and cancer is considerably higher,” she said.
But, she added that avoiding processed meats altogether or only having them occasionally is a healthier diet. Instead of reaching for a hot dog or a sandwich with salami, Reidy-Lagunes said lean meats (like chicken) are the better option, along with proteins like fish, beans and nuts.
In today’s “we can’t have anything” news, it turns out that while foods like grilled chicken and grilled fish are nutritious — they’re high in protein and low in calories — putting something on the grill to the point that it chars can increase your cancer risk, according to Brawley.
“The [char] has heterocyclic aromatic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, both are known carcinogens,” he said. And this goes for grilled red meat, of course, but also for the healthier grilled items mentioned above.
You can still have grilled foods, but to reduce your cancer risk, Brawley said you shouldn’t grill them to the point of charring. He added that, for this reason, he avoids meats that are really, really grilled.
Dr. Chris Scuderi, a family physician in Jacksonville, Florida, and a cancer survivor, said he doesn’t eat red meat because it can increase your risk of certain kinds of cancer. “I haven’t had meat in 12 years,” Scuderi said.
Llor agreed and added that red meat is something that he consumes rarely because of its cancer risk and cardiovascular risk (red meat consumption is linked to heart disease).
Specifically, studies show that red meat is linked to a higher probability of colorectal cancer and, according to MD Anderson Cancer Center, it also heightens the risk of prostate and pancreatic cancer.
Cereal And Other Sugary, Processed Foods
Llor said he avoids foods that are ultra-processed, like cereal, because of the connection between processed foods and cancer. Additionally, he said he tries not to consume cakes and pastries for the same reason.
While sugar doesn’t directly influence cancer, it can increase other risk factors, like obesity (one of the leading risk factors for many types of cancer) and Type 2 diabetes, which can also increase one’s risk of cancer.
“There’s a diabetes and obesity link to cancer,” Brawley said. According to a 2018 study (Brawley is a co-author of the study), 7.8% of cancers are due to excess body weight.
In addition, a British study of 200,000 people found that those who consumed ultra-processed foods (like cereal and cakes) may have a higher risk of developing cancer.
Scuderi said he also avoids processed items.
“I’m a cancer survivor, so I pay close attention to my diet, and also avoid processed and packaged foods as much as possible, and eat as cleanly as possible,” Scuderi added.
“The thing that I avoid as much as possible, and I don’t avoid it 100%, [is] white bread,” Brawley added.
When asked why, Brawley explained that white bread has no nutritional benefit that you can’t get with whole-grain bread. And, similar to cereal and sugary foods, it’s linked to cancer risk factors like diabetes and obesity.
Soda And Other Sugary Drinks
“I also, by the way, do not drink sugary beverages,” Brawley said. This is again because of the lack of nutritional value and the high caloric value.
Llor added that soft drinks and sugary beverages are also something he rarely consumes.