Some cancer risk factors are modifiable. This means people can alter their risk by making changes, such as with their diet. Alcohol, red meat, and highly processed foods all have links to a higher risk of cancer.

Studies link about 42% of cancer cases and 45% of cancer deaths in the United States to risk factors that people may be able to change, such as overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, and poor diet.

Certain ultra-processed foods and fast foods can increase the risk of developing cancer if a person consumes them in large amounts or over long periods.

Research links processed foods such as bacon, sausages, packaged snacks, sugary cereals, and soda to increased cancer risk. Furthermore, red meat and alcohol can contribute to cancer risk if people consume them in excess.

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

hot dogsShare on Pinterest
Jesse Morrow/Stocksy

Certain foods can increase the risk of cancer if people consumes them in excess. However, the relationship between food and cancer risk may not be straightforward. For example, some foods can increase the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, conditions that have links to certain types of cancer.

Additionally, certain foods — including processed meats, alcohol, and fried foods — contain carcinogens, which are harmful substances that can cause cancer.

Read our in-depth special feature to learn more about the link between food and cancer.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies red meat into group 2A, which means it is “probably carcinogenic” to humans. A carcinogen is any substance that can cause cancer. The following are examples of red meat:

  • beef
  • pork
  • lamb
  • mutton
  • veal
  • goat

Experts have found strong evidence of the link between colorectal cancer and consuming large quantities 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 portions per week, with a total cooked weight of 12–18 ounces.

Processed meat is meat that manufacturers have preserved through smoking, curing, or salting. Examples include:

  • sausages
  • hot dogs
  • salami
  • lunch meat
  • bacon
  • ham
  • corned beef
  • beef jerky

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

The WHO states that there is “convincing evidence” that processed meats cause cancer. According to a 2019 review, processed meat consumption is a significant risk factor for colorectal cancer. Experts also link it to stomach and breast cancers.

Read more about colorectal cancer and the importance of diet.


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

Processed foods include:

  • packaged snacks such as cookies and chips
  • frozen meals
  • sugary cereals
  • soda
  • spreads such as margarine and cream cheese
  • sweets such as candies and chocolate
  • fast food such as pizza, hamburgers, and fried chicken

Manufacturers modify these foods with chemicals such as flavorings, colors, emulsifiers, and other additives to make them taste better and last longer.

Processed foods often contain high levels of salt, sugar, fat, and cancer-causing 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.

Read about how ultra-processed foods lead to cancer and more.


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

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • nuts and seeds
  • whole grains

People can also opt for minimally processed items such as canned beans, frozen vegetables, and jarred salsa.

Cancer-causing chemicals that may be in food include:

Countless other cancer-causing chemicals, such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and food dyes, may be present in processed foods.


A person may choose to buy organic foods, which food producers grow without using cancer-causing pesticides or chemicals. If buying organic is not an option, using fresh, whole foods to prepare homemade meals is the best way to limit exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

Alcohol is a group 1 carcinogen, meaning it has shown sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity. Experts link alcohol to cancers of the:

  • throat
  • esophagus
  • breast
  • liver
  • colon and rectum

The cancer risk of alcohol appears to be dose-dependent in some types of cancer, meaning that the more people drink, the higher their risk is.

Read more about the link between alcohol and cancer.

Foods high in refined sugar and refined carbohydrates, such as candy, white bread, pasta, and sugary drinks, can indirectly increase cancer risk. Consuming large amounts of sugar can contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and chronic inflammation — all cancer risk factors.

Studies suggest that type 2 diabetes increases the risk for ovarian, breast, and uterine cancers. Furthermore, a high sugar diet can increase blood glucose levels, a risk factor for colorectal cancer.

Read more about the link between cancer and sugar.

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

  • fruit
  • vegetables
  • whole grains
  • lean proteins such as fish and chicken
  • healthy fats such as olive oil and avocado

Read about the seven best cancer-fighting foods.

Eating certain foods may increase the risk of cancer. Therefore, a person should try to limit their consumption of processed and red meats, processed and fast foods, alcohol, and sugar.

Instead, try to prepare fresh, homemade meals and snacks from whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, and low fat dairy.

Eating a balanced, nutritious diet can also help reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, conditions that increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.