Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet

Research suggests that eating well benefits people during and after cancer treatment. It can help you to maintain muscle strength, maintain a healthy weight and have more energy, all of which can improve your quality of life.

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Eat more fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and fibre

Fruit and vegetables are essential for a healthy, balanced diet. They are a great source of fibre, vitamins and minerals. Fruit and vegetables also contain natural protective substances, such as antioxidants, that can prevent damage to DNA and other cells, and destroy cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) and cancer cells. Fruit and vegetables are low in kilojoules – eating them can help you maintain a healthy body weight.

Dietary fibre can help to ensure a healthy digestive system and reduce the risk of bowel cancer. Eating a diet high in fibre, including fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals, can also lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and help you maintain a healthy body weight. Some people experience ongoing bowel problems after cancer treatment (e.g. surgery or radiation therapy to the pelvis). If you find that dietary fibre makes any bowel problems worse, you may need to eat low-fibre foods.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend eating at least two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables daily. Aim to eat a variety of different-coloured fresh fruit and vegetables. They are best eaten whole (i.e. not in a juice or supplement form), and a combination of cooked and raw vegetables is recommended. Frozen and tinned vegetables are still nutritious and are a good alternative. Look for varieties without added sugars, salt or fats.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that most adults eat at least four serves of cereal or grain foods each day, with at least two-thirds of these being wholemeal or wholegrain varieties.

Limit your intake of red meat and avoid processed meats

It is important to eat a balanced diet that is high in plant foods, such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals, but there is no need to give up meat. Lean red meat is an important contributor to dietary iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein.

Eating too much red meat increases your risk of bowel cancer. To reduce your cancer risk, Cancer Council recommends people eat no more than one serve of lean red meat per day or two serves 3–4 days a week.

There is strong evidence that eating processed meats, such as ham, bacon and deli meats, is associated with an increased risk of bowel and stomach cancers.

There is no conclusive evidence that being a vegetarian has a positive impact on survival after cancer treatment. However, increasing your consumption of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods will probably improve the quality of your diet. If you are considering reducing the amount of meat in your diet, it is important to include a variety of other proteins. These include eggs, legumes, pulses, nuts, wholegrains, soya and dairy products.

How much is a serve?

Fruit & vegetables Cereal & grains Meat (uncooked)
  • 1 medium-sized piece of fruit
  • 2 smaller fruits, e.g. plum, apricot
  • 1 cup diced fruit
  • ½ cup cooked vegetables
  • 1 cup raw salad vegetables
  • 1 slice of wholegrain bread
  • ½ cup cooked brown rice or wholemeal pasta
  • ²∕³ cup wholegrain breakfast cereal
  • 100 g lamb loin chop
  • 100 g steak
  • ½ cup diced red meat
  • ½ cup mince

Tips to help you improve your diet

Here are some tips to help you improve your diet:

  • Eat a variety of nutritious foods every day.
  • Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, legumes, wholegrain and high-fibre foods.
  • Try reduced-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese, that are also low in added sugars or salt.
  • Limit your intake of red meat.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat and trim as much fat as possible before cooking.
  • Cut out processed meats like ham, bacon and deli meats altogether or eat only rarely.
  • For breakfast, add fruit and yoghurt to wholegrain cereal or serve some vegetables with your eggs and toast.
  • Limit the portion size of your meals and snacks.
  • Adapt your recipes to include more vegetables, beans and legumes, e.g. add grated carrot and zucchini, celery, capsicum, beans or peas to pasta sauces.
  • Fill half your dinner plate with vegetables.
  • Swap sugary drinks for water.
  • Avoid snacks that are high in added fats, sugars and salt, such as chips, biscuits and chocolate. Replace them with nuts, fruit, yoghurt or cheese.
  • Limit takeaway foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.
  • Don’t add salt to food during cooking or before eating. Add flavour with herbs and spices.
  • Grill, poach and bake rather than fry.
  • Steam or microwave vegetables to maintain their nutritional goodness.
  • Use a non-stick frying pan or a small amount of polyunsaturated oil (e.g. olive oil) when pan-frying.

This information was last reviewed in April 2018
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