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  • Denise Scott

Children and Cancer Prevention

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

There are numerous cancers children can develop risk for in childhood

Evidence shows that diet is one of the primary, controllable factors in disease prevention, including cancer. The American Cancer Society has identified thirteen cancers related to diet, estimating that 30% of adult cancers can be delayed or prevented with diet, regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight. Causes of cancer are multiple and involve both genetic and environmental factors. Diet is something we can control.

Even though childhood cancer is relatively rare, it accounts for one of the top three causes of death in children ages 5-14. The role of diet in the prevention of childhood cancer is not well understood, but new information occurs frequently. There is much known regarding adult cancer prevention with nutrition; that information will be highlighted in this article. Cancer prevention should start during childhood to ensure a healthy adulthood. There is evidence that being overweight or underweight can affect outcomes in childhood cancers. Some known potential carcinogens that have adverse effects on children are included.


Red meat - includes beef, pork, and lamb, especially after extensive heating at high temperatures.

Processed meats - include sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni, salami, bacon, beef jerky, and lunchmeat. These typically contain sodium nitrites, used as a preservative and for color, and can form carcinogens in the GI tract.

The above meats are risk factors for colon and rectal cancers.

Refined grains - include white flour products, white rice, white bread, and regular pasta. A diet high in these items increases the risk of colorectal cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Obesity is a risk factor for certain cancers.

Sugar - excess consumption is also a risk factor for colorectal cancer, diabetes, and obesity.

Fiber - diets low in fiber meaning low in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are a risk factor for colorectal cancer.

A Western-type diet, high in animal protein, low in fiber, and high in refined grains, processed foods, salt, and sugar, is a risk factor for cancer development.


Fish - The American Heart Association advocates eating fish twice weekly for its content of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). A diet rich in omega-3 PUFAs is associated with a decreased cancer risk of colorectal cancer.

Pregnant women and young children should avoid swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish due to their mercury content.

Legumes and beans are low in fat, good protein sources, high in fiber, micronutrients, and phytochemicals, and may help to reduce cancers along the GI tract.

Whole grains and cereals, such as brown rice, bulgur, whole wheat pasta, and oatmeal, have cancer-protective effects due to fiber. Dietary fiber also acts as a prebiotic for the gut microbiota to protect against colon cancer.

Fruit and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and fiber and have cancer-protective effects. A diet high in fruit and vegetables is protective against cancers of the GI tract, liver, bladder, and possibly lung and endometrial. There are no adverse effects of consuming fruit and vegetables! Make ⅔ of your plate plant foods.

Vitamin D from fatty fish, milk and dairy, mushrooms, and fortified foods is linked to cancer prevention. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to cancer, autoimmune disorders, and osteoporosis.

Fiber from vegetables, fruit, beans and legumes, nuts, and whole grains helps to protect against colon cancer.


Obesity is a risk factor for both adults and children for cancer development. The American Cancer Society has associated 13 different cancers with obesity. These include:

Breast, bowel, kidney, liver, endometrial, ovarian, stomach, thyroid, esophagus, gallbladder, pancreas, multiple myeloma, and prostate cancers.

Obesity is also related to poorer outcomes in those with cancer - an additional reason to prevent and treat obesity in childhood.

Tobacco products and second-hand smoke are known carcinogens

Tobacco smoke is full of carcinogens. Second-hand smoke is a risk factor for lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and asthma.

Alcohol intake in excess increases the risk of GI and breast cancers.

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) recommend the following cancer prevention steps:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight

  2. Be physically active

  3. Eat a healthy diet -

  • Eat a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and beans

  • Limit fast foods and ultra-processed foods

  • Limit red meat and processed meats

  • Limit alcohol consumption

  • Limit sugar-sweetened drinks

4. Avoid tobacco and second-hand smoke

5. Avoid excess sun exposure

A very recent study claimed that even swapping out 10% processed foods with minimally processed foods lowered the risk for several cancers. Swapping out more is even better. The reverse is also true - for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption, there is an increase in the overall risk of cancer.

Many foods in their natural state contain cancer-fighting components

All cancer components can be influenced by nutrition - prevention, therapy, side effects, and quality of life.

Cancer prevention should start preconception with

  • a healthy diet

  • regular exercise

  • adequate folic acid intake.

Preventive measures during pregnancy include

  • an adequate intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes

  • folic acid and prenatal vitamin intake

  • avoidance of alcohol and tobacco products.

Infancy, childhood, and adolescence measures entail

  • limiting red and processed meats and avoiding nitrates/nitrites

  • minimizing sugared beverages and ultra-processed foods

  • consuming lots of fruits and vegetables

  • avoiding tobacco and second-hand smoke

  • getting regular exercise

  • preventing obesity.

The most effective strategy is to start early!

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