Skip to content

Cancer Council supports the Australian Dietary Guidelines published by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

How is diet linked to cancer?

A healthy, balanced diet will not only give you more energy and help you to maintain a healthy weight (an independent risk factor for cancer); it can also cut your cancer risk directly, particularly cancers of the gastro-intestinal tract.

A diet high in fruit and vegetables offers our body nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to help protect the body from cell damage and cancer. In contrast, other types of foods (and drinks) can have the opposite effect and have been shown to damage the cells that line the bowel, which can lead to bowel cancer.  It is important to ensure our diet is varied and balanced and contains plenty of health promoting foods.

Cancer Council recommendations

To reduce your risk of cancer, eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and wholegrain foods. Limit consumption of red meat to less than 455 g (700 g raw weight) and avoid eating processed meats such as ham, bacon, salami and frankfurts. Limit consumption of food and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt (and low in nutritional value) such as junk food, biscuits, chocolate, sugary drinks and alcohol.

Fruit and vegetables contain nutrients that can be protective against cancer.

Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is likely to reduce the risk of cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, stomach and bowel. Fruit may also protect against lung cancer.

Fruit and vegetables also play an important role in weight management as they are low in fat and kilojoules, and high in fibre so can keep you feeling fuller for longer. As obesity is a convincing risk factor for cancer of the bowel, kidney, pancreas, oesophagus, endometrium and breast (in post-menopausal women), fruit and vegetables may also protect against cancer indirectly by helping you to maintain a healthy body weight.

Recommended number of serves

For information on number of serves for younger children click here.

For information on number of serves for pregnant or lactating women click here.

1 serve of vegetables =

  • ½ cup cooked green or orange vegetables (for example, broccoli, spinach, carrots or pumpkin)
  • 1 cup of leafy or raw salad vegetables
  • ½ cup dried or canned beans, lentils, peas or sweetcorn
  • ½ medium potato or other starchy vegetable
  • 1 medium tomato

1 serve of fruit =

  • 1 medium apple, banana, orange or pear
  • 2 small apricots, kiwi fruits or plums
  • 1 cup diced or canned fruit (no added sugar)

Or occasionally

  • ½ cup fruit juice (no added sugar)
  • 30g dried fruit eg. 4 dried apricot halves, 11/2 tablespoons of sultanas

Eat a variety of different coloured fruit and vegetables every day. Fresh, frozen, dried or canned fruit and vegetables can all be chosen as part of a healthy diet.

Fruit and vegetables are also high in fibre. For more information on how dietary fibre can help cut your cancer risk, see the following ‘Dietary fibre and wholegrain cereals’ section.

Evidence shows dietary fibre decreases the risk of colorectal cancer, and can assist in maintaining a healthy weight.

Every day, men should be aiming for 30g of dietary fibre and women should be aiming for 25 g.

Dietary fibre is the part of plant foods such as vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds that cannot be digested in the stomach or small intestine. Dietary fibre passes relatively unchanged into the large intestine, where it is fermented by bacteria—boosting gut health and reducing cancer risk.

As well as fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, other great sources of fibre include wholemeal or wholegrain breads or wraps, couscous, quinoa, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, high-fibre cereals, muesli and oats.

Recommended number of serves

For information on number of serves for younger children click here.

For information on number of serves for pregnant or lactating women click here.

1 serve =

  • 1 slice bread
  • ½ medium roll or flat bread
  • ½ cup cooked pasta, rice, noodles, barley, buckwheat, semolina, polenta, bulgur or quinoa
  • ½ cup cooked porridge
  • 2/3 cup wheat cereal flakes
  • ¼ cup muesli
  • 3 crispbreads

For more information on how dietary fibre cuts your cancer risk, click here.

There is convincing evidence that red meat and processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer and the more you eat, the higher the risk.

Cancer Council recommends that you:

  • Limit lean red meat intake to a palm-sized serve up to three or four times a week (no more than 455 g cooked/700 g raw per week).
  • Limit or avoid eating processed meats like frankfurts, salami, bacon and ham.
  • Limit consumption of burnt or charred meat.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat and chicken, and eat more fish and plenty of plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables, beans and wholegrain cereals.

Despite concerns about red meat and cancer, Cancer Council recognises that lean red meat is an important contributor to dietary iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein.

Recommended number of serves

For information on number of serves for younger children click here.

For information on number of serves for pregnant or lactating women click here.

1 serve =

  • 65 g cooked lean red meat such as beef, lamb, veal, pork, goat or kangaroo
  • 80 g lean poultry such as chicken or turkey
  • 100 g cooked fish fillet or one small can of fish
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup cooked or canned legumes/beans such as lentils, chick peas or split peas (preferably with no added salt)
  • 170 g tofu
  • 30 g nuts, seeds, peanut or almond butter, tahini or other nut/seed paste (no added salt). These nuts and seeds contain less protein, iron and zinc so should be used only occasionally as a substitute).

In terms of cancer risk, research into dairy foods and calcium have shown both to have protective and harmful effects. However, due to the strong body of evidence to support the health benefits of consuming dairy foods, Cancer Council recommends consuming dairy foods as part of a well-balanced diet.

For more information, see dairy foods, calcium and cancer prevention position statement.


For information on number of serves for younger children click here.

For information on number of serves for pregnant or lactating women click here.

1 serve =

  • 1 cup fresh, UHT long life, reconstituted powdered milk or buttermilk
  • ½ cup evaporated milk
  • 40 g hard cheese, such as cheddar
  • ¾ cup yoghurt
  • 1 cup soy, rice or other cereal drink with at least 100 mg of added calcium per 100 ml

Drinking sugar-sweetened drinks is associated with increased energy intake and in turn weight gain and obesity. Obesity is a leading risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and 13 types of cancer (see ‘Maintain a healthy weight’).

Sugar-sweetened drinks include soft drinks, flavoured mineral waters, fortified waters, energy and electrolyte drinks, fruit and vegetable drinks (that have added sugar), and cordials.

Recommendation:

Avoid or limit sugar-sweetened drinks; instead choose water or reduced-fat milk.

Download our sugary drinks resource here.

Even drinking moderate amounts of alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, breast and bowel.

Any level of alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing alcohol-related cancer. All types of alcoholic beverages can increase your cancer risk.

Recommendation:

  • Limit your intake of alcohol or, better still, avoid it altogether.
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, limit to no more than two standard drinks per day.

1 standard drink (10 g alcohol) =

  • 285 ml of full-strength beer or cider (one South Australian schooner)
  • 425 ml of low alcohol beer (one South Australian pint)
  • 100 ml of white, red or sparkling wine (one small glass)
  • 30 ml of spirits (one nip)

There is a probable causal relationship between salt and salt-preserved foods and stomach cancer risk. Salt is also a leading cause of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Recommendation:

  • Choose a diet low in salt (aim for less than 1,600 mg of sodium (4 g of salt) per day.
  • Limit salt intake by avoiding adding salt in cooking/serving, and by limiting processed foods.
  • Flavour foods with herbs and spices instead of salt.

Diets that protect against weight gain, overweight and obesity are thought to protect against cancers associated with excess body weight.



This webpage was last reviewed and updated in January 2020.