Foods That May Cause Cancer

According to research, these should avoided (or at least limited)

Red and processed meats, like hot dogs and bacon, have long been associated with causing cancer. Although more research is needed, studies have raised the same concern about foods high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat, as well as the role of alcohol.

Reducing or eliminating these foods entirely may help reduce your cancer risk. It can also help you fend off obesity—a risk factor for several cancer types in and of itself.

This article discusses the aforementioned foods that may cause cancer, including related research findings. It also offers a few food alternatives that may help to limit your cancer risk.

Red and Processed Meats

© iStockphoto

Red meat offers health benefits, including protein, iron, and vitamin B12. But there's also evidence of its role in contributing to cancers such as:

How meat is prepared plays a role in what cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens) are released.

One study found that well-done meats cooked at high heat over an open flame, as well as smoked meats, may increase prostate cancer risk.

Processed meats are linked to an increased risk of developing cancer. They also tend to have more salt and saturated fat as ingredients, which may add to the risk.

These foods include:

  • Hot dogs
  • Lunchmeats, like corned beef or salami
  • Bacon, ham, and sausage
  • Beef jerky

Consuming these foods has been associated with colon and rectal cancers, but it may also play a role in pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, stomach and esophageal cancers, and cancers of the nose and throat.

Replacing Red Meat

You can replace some of the red meat you consume with poultry meats, meat substitutes (like Beyond Burger), or fish. You also can try eating more beans, tofu, nuts, and legumes as protein sources in your diet.

Sugary Foods

sugary cereal worst foods to eat
Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Consuming too much sugar has been linked to a number of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular (heart) disease, and more.

Sugars including fructose, lactose (a natural sugar found in milk), and maltose has been implicated in different cancer types, including breast cancer.

While a direct link has not been demonstrated, there is evidence of a correlation between sugary diets and cancer.

One study of 101,279 people followed for nearly six years on average found that total sugar intake was associated with higher overall cancer risk.

The authors concluded that people who modify their diets by reducing sugar consumption may benefit from a reduced risk of cancer.

Cancer and the Keto Diet

Advocates of the ketogenic diet say it may help to prevent cancer because it disrupts sugar-related metabolic processes in the body that create the conditions in which cancer cells can thrive. More research is needed to understand these effects.

Saturated Fats


Some studies suggest a link between saturated fat consumption and breast cancer, as well as how an existing cancer advances in people who consume them.

Saturated fats come from red meat and other meat sources, but also dairy products, processed snack foods, and certain types of oils. They stay in solid form at room temperature, like butter and coconut oil do.

Options to replace foods high in saturated fats include olive oil and foods (like some types of fish) that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, an essential nutrient.

Saturated fats pose a number of additional health risks including high cholesterol and heart disease, so reducing them will benefit you in other ways, too.

Can Dairy Cause Cancer?

There is some research suggesting that consumption of dairy products, like cheeses, is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer. More research is needed to establish and understand the relationship between dairy products, saturated fats, and cancer risk.


These Alcoholic Beverages Lead People to Make the Worst Decisions

Excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages has long been implicated in liver diseases like cirrhosis. This condition increases your risk for liver cancer. Alcohol also may also play a role in other cancer diagnoses.

These cancers include:

  • Breast cancer
  • Mouth and throat cancers
  • Digestive tract cancers, including colon and esophageal cancers

Moderate alcohol use may increase cancer risk too, but it's excessive drinking that dramatically increases your chances of developing cancer—especially if you also smoke.

Heavy drinking is defined as four drinks per day (or more than 14 drinks per week) in males, or three drinks per day (or more than seven in a week) for females.

Salty Foods

Study Shows Salty Foods Don't Make You Thirsty After All
© IgorDutina / Getty Images

Salt consumption may play a role in development of certain cancer types, although studies remain inconclusive.

What is clear is that salt leads to chronic inflammation, which may influence how cancer develops.

A number of cancer types, including breast, prostate, liver, and stomach cancers, may be associated with salt intake because of sodium's key cellular role in the body.

Blood pressure, kidney function, and even your immune system health may be affected by the salt you use, as well.

Salt and Cancer Treatment

High sodium levels may interfere with cancer treatment in those living with a cancer diagnosis. Research suggests that sodium in key chemical pathways can push chemotherapy drugs used to treat breast cancer out of cells and away from its targets.


The role of certain foods in causing cancer, such as red meat's impact on colon and rectal cancer risk, is well-established.

But for many other foods, an understanding of the direct link between food and cancer continues to evolve. Research evidence does suggest a relationship between dairy foods and breast cancer, for example, but more study is needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do eggs cause cancer?

    Some studies have found that eating five eggs a week may increase the risk of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer. However, more studies are needed to confirm this.

  • Can chicken cause cancer?

    It's unclear. A 2019 study found a link between eating poultry and a higher risk of prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In contrast, a same-year study found that poultry consumption reduced the risk of invasive breast cancer.

  • Does a vegan diet reduce cancer risk?

    The risk of getting cancer may be lower in vegans than meat eaters. One study showed that total cancer incidence was 19% lower in vegans compared with meat eaters.

  • What foods can prevent cancer?

    You can help reduce your risk of cancer by eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes (beans and lentils).

21 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI
Yasmine Ali, MD, is board-certified in cardiology. She is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an award-winning physician writer.