Eating healthy food/kai and being a healthy weight is an important part of reducing your cancer risk.

We know it's not always easy, and that's why improving access to healthy food/kai is an important area of our work. 

Eating healthy kai and being a healthy weight can help reduce your risk of at least 12 different cancers, including the mouth, voice box (larynx), oesophagus (food pipe), pancreas, liver, bowel, gall bladder, kidney, ovaries, the lining of the womb (endometrium), and breast cancer (after menopause).

To reduce your risk of cancer, we recommend that you:

  • be a healthy weight
  • be physically active
  • eat a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruit and beans (lentils and legumes)
  • limit ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars
  • limit red and processed meat
  • limit sugary drinks
  • avoid or limit alcohol
  • do not use supplements for cancer prevention
  • breastfeed your baby, if you're able

If you've been diagnosed with cancer, follow these recommendations if you can. 

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Whānau having a picnic
Top: Whānau having a picnic
Left: Whānau having a picnic

What is healthy food/kai?

Enjoy a variety of healthy foods every day, including:

  • plenty of vegetables and fruit
  • whole-grain foods that are naturally high in fibre such as bread, crackers, breakfast cereal, rice, pasta, some milk and milk products (cheese and yoghurt) or alternatives that are mostly low or reduced-fat
  • some lentils, legumes, nuts and seeds or fish, chicken and/or red meat with the fat removed.

Choose and/or prepare foods and drinks:

  • with unsaturated fats such as canola, corn, rice bran, soy or olive oil, avocado and margarine instead of saturated fats like butter, coconut, palm oil or cheese
  • that are low in salt (sodium). Choose reduced or non-added salt (NAS) foods such as peanut butter or margarine. If you use salt, choose iodised salt
  • has little or no added sugar and is not processed, such as fresh fruit rather than juice, whole potatoes rather than crisps, porridge rather than Ricies.

The challenge of healthy eating

Most of us try to eat well, but it is not always easy.

We are bombarded by the advertising of unhealthy kai such as sugary drinks or fast ultra-processed food/kai. This unhealthy food/kai is usually cheap and easy to buy.

We want everyone to access affordable, nutritious kai easily, so they're healthy and experience less cancer. 

Handy hints to start healthy eating habits

It’s never too late to start making some small changes to your eating habits. 

It might help to think about what makes it hard to eat healthy kai and how you could make it easier. 

Get your whānau on board and get started by setting two to three small goals from this list:

  • make water your ‘go-to' drink
  • start the day with porridge or Weetbix with milk and fruit
  • take a wholemeal sandwich or roll and fruit for lunch
  • get cooking with the whānau - this can be fun, healthier and cheaper
  • grow your own or visit your local fruit and veg market - it's fresh and cheaper
  • try meatless meals using lentils or legumes - a cheap and tasty protein

There are resources to help you prepare healthy kai at home. Understanding food labels and the "Health Star Rating" system can help. 


mixed food

Specific advice on some foods, supplements and storage

Red meat can provide an important source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12.

However, eating too much red meat and, in particular, processed meat may increase the risk of bowel cancer.

To reduce bowel cancer risk, we recommend: 

  • eating no more than 350-500 grams cooked (or less than 700-750g raw) red meat (beef, lamb, pork) or less than three portions weekly.  A 100g (cooked) serving is equivalent to two slices of meat or one to two chicken drumsticks or ½ cup minced meat
  • limiting or avoiding processed (smoked, cured, fermented, salted) meats, chicken or fish such as frankfurters, corned beef, bacon, ham, sausages, and salami
  • to regularly include alternate iron-rich protein such as legumes, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, eggs, chicken, fish and seafood.

Cooking beef, pork, fish, or poultry at high temperatures or in direct contact with a flame or a hot surface, such as pan-frying, barbecuing, or grilling, can cause the formation of potentially carcinogenic chemicals.

However, there is not enough data to clearly associate the way meat is cooked with cancer risk to date.

For more information, see World Cancer Research Fund or IRAC. 

We recommend reducing the risk of carcinogenic chemical formation by:

  • using lower cooking temperatures rather than too much direct exposure to an open flame or a hot metal surface and avoiding prolonged cooking times at high temperatures
  • turning meat, fish and chicken regularly to avoid burning and removing charred portions. 

When starchy foods, like bread or potatoes, are cooked until they are dark brown, a compound called acrylamide is formed.

Studies using animal have found a link between eating overcooked foods such as burnt toast that contains acrylamide and cancer risk. This has not been found in humans.  

We recommend when baking, toasting or roasting starchy foods like potatoes, parsnips and bread to cook only till golden yellow colour. 

Eating a diet low in salt (sodium chloride) is good for your health and protects against cancer risk.

Fresh whole foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, fish, legumes and lentils, eggs and milk contain little natural salt but provide enough for your body’s needs.  

However, most processed food such as packaged, canned, fast food and takeaways use added salt to flavour and preserve them and have been linked to greater cancer risk. 

  • Salted preserved fish and pickled vegetables are linked to stomach and nasopharyngeal cancer risk.  See here for more on preserving, processing and cancer risk.
  • Red meat, preserved by salting, fermentation, curing and smoking such as bacon, ham, salami, and sausages, increase colorectal cancer risk.  

Eating mostly fresh, whole, unprocessed foods will help lower your salt intake, cancer risk and support good health. 

Eating food high in fibre and more fruit and vegetables may protect you from some cancers, especially bowel cancer. This means regularly eating whole grain bread and cereals, a colourful variety of fruit and vegetables (especially non-starchy vegetables), and legumes and lentils provide cancer protection.

Soybean products such as tofu, tempeh, miso, green soybean (edamame) and soy milk contain chemicals called isoflavones (phytoestrogens). Isoflavones are like human oestrogen but have a much milder effect.

While the use of high amounts of soy in animal studies increased breast cancer risk this has not been found in people. In fact, some evidence finds moderate amounts of soy products (but not supplements) can instead provide health benefits and better survival of breast cancer survivors.

Soy products used in moderation add protein, fibre and variety to your diet.

You should try to get all the vitamins and minerals you need through what you eat.

Evidence does not support the need for vitamin or mineral supplements (including high dose supplementation) to prevent cancer. High-dose supplements could increase the risk of cancer in some people.

For more information:

Concerns have been raised that chemicals in plastic bottles, cling film and food containers used to store or freeze food could cause cancer by seeping into their contents.

However, while pollutants from plastics packaging exist, the amounts are within safe levels and no evidence links them to cancer in humans.

We recommend following the manufacturers reheating and storage instructions to limit expose of any potential risks from plastics. 

Last updated: April 22, 2021