Improving access to healthy kai (food) is an important area of work for us, to reduce the second leading cause of preventable cancer (after tobacco), in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Currently one in three children and two in three adults are overweight and less than one in two get enough fruit and vegetables for health.  

Eating healthy kai and being a healthy weight are important ways to prevent cancer.

Healthy kai and a healthy weight can protect against at least 12 different cancers including the mouth, voice box, throat, oesophagus (food pipe), pancreas, liver, bowel, gall bladder, kidney, ovaries, endometrium (lining of the womb), and breast cancer (after menopause).

To protect against cancer we recommend:

  1. Be a healthy weight
  2. Be physically active
  3. Eat a diet rich in wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and beans (lentils and legumes)
  4. Limit ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars
  5. Limit red and processed meat
  6. Limit sugary drinks
  7. Avoid or limit alcohol
  8. Do not use supplements for cancer prevention.
  9. Breastfeed your baby if you can
  10. After cancer diagnosis follow these recommendations if you can.

Most of us try to eat well but it is not always easy. We are bombarded by advertising promoting cheap tasty processed kai such as fast food, sugary drinks and ultra-processed snack food.

These unhealthy foods are often more widely promoted and easier to buy in poorer suburbs. Lack of money makes it hard for one in five families to buy healthy kai.

These things contribute to the high rates of diet-related cancer experienced more by Māori. We want everyone to be able to easily access affordable healthy kai to be healthy, and experience less cancer.

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What you can do

If we all work together, we can create an environment where it is easier to access affordable healthy kai. 

Everyone has a part to play in providing and promoting healthy kai where we work, live and play.  Talk to your workplace, school, community group, marae, church, clubroom about having a healthy food policy:

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Healthy kai for your whānau

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

1. 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 breads, 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.

2. Choose and/or prepare foods and drinks:

  • with unsaturated fats such as canola, corn, rice bran, soya 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 which are not processed, such as fresh fruit rather than juice, whole potatoes rather than crisps, porridge rather than Ricies.


3. Make plain water your first choice over other drinks.

 Handy hints:

  • Explore the ‘why’ or reasons you want to make changes to your eating patterns.
  • Think about the things that make it difficult to make changes and how you might overcome these challenges.
  • Get your whānau on board. Food habits start early in life.
    Get started by setting two to three small goals from this list.
  • Make water your ‘go to’ drink.
  • Get cooking with the whānau! This can be fun, healthier and cheaper.
  • Start the day with porridge or Weetbix with milk and fruit.
  • Take a wholemeal sandwich or roll, and fruit for lunch.

There are resources to help you prepare good healthy kai at home. Making the right choice at the market or supermarket is a good start. There is advice on understanding food labels and Health Star Ratings.

Specific advice on some foods

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: 

Eat 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 approx. two slices 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 such as legumes, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, eggs, chicken, fish and seafoods.

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

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

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 a dark brown, a compound called acrylamide is formed.

Animal studies 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 sufficient 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. See here how to reduce your salt intake 

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

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

While use of high amounts of soy in animal studies (rodents) 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.

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: March 30, 2021