It is important to eat a balanced diet from the five food groups – fruit, vegetables and legumes, wholegrains, meat (or alternatives) and dairy (or alternatives). Limit foods containing saturated fat, added salt and added sugars, and avoid sugary drinks.
Learn more about:
- Fruit, vegetables and legumes
- Wholegrain, wholemeal and high-fibre foods
- Red meat and processed meat
- How much is a serve?
- Managing dietary changes
- Ways to eat well after cancer
Eating fruit, vegetables and legumes (e.g. beans, lentils, peas) is important for your health. They are a great source of fibre, vitamins and minerals. Fruit and vegetables also contain natural substances, such as antioxidants and phytochemicals, which can protect cells in the body from damage that may lead to cancer. Eating fruit, vegetables and legumes can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight because they are low in kilojoules and high in fibre.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend eating at least two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables or legumes daily. Aim to eat a variety of different-coloured fresh fruit and vegetables. They are best eaten whole (not juiced), and it’s good to eat both cooked and raw vegetables. Frozen and tinned vegetables are just as nutritious and are a good alternative to fresh produce – look for varieties without added sugars, salt or fats.
Wholegrain, wholemeal and high-fibre foods
Dietary fibre can help to ensure a healthy digestive system and reduce the risk of bowel cancer. Eating a diet high in fibre and wholegrain foods can also lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and help you maintain a healthy body weight.
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 wholegrain or wholemeal varieties. Wholegrain foods include wholemeal breads, rolled oats, wholemeal pasta, brown rice, barley, popping corn, cracked wheat (burghul) and quinoa. Wholegrain foods contain the outer layer of the grain, which contains fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Wholemeal foods are made from wholegrains that have been crushed to a finer texture. Nutritionally, wholemeal and wholegrain foods are very similar.
Some people continue to have bowel problems after cancer treatment. If you find that dietary fibre makes any bowel problems worse, you may need to eat low-fibre foods. A dietitian can recommend suitable foods for your situation.
Red meat includes beef, lamb, pork, veal, goat, venison and kangaroo. Lean red meat is an important source of dietary iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein. But 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 a day or two serves on 3–4 days a week.
There is strong evidence that eating processed meats, such as ham, bacon and prosciutto, is associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer. Cancer Council recommends you avoid eating processed meats.
There is no conclusive evidence that eating a vegetarian diet has a positive impact on survival after cancer treatment. However, eating more fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrain foods will probably improve the quality of your diet.
How much is a serve?
Fruit, vegetables, legumes
Managing dietary changes
Treatment for some cancers can affect how you eat, swallow, digest food and absorb essential nutrients. You may need to try different foods and ways of eating to find out what works for you.
A dietitian can help tailor an eating plan to manage any ongoing issues. They can also provide advice about suitable nutritional supplements to help maintain your strength.
It may take time and support to adapt to your new way of eating. You may feel self-conscious or worry about eating in public or with friends. These reactions are natural.
It may help to talk about how you feel with your family and friends, your GP, a counsellor or someone who has been through a similar experience.
For more on this, see Nutrition and cancer.
Ways to eat well after cancer
- Eat a variety of nutritious foods every day.
- Add vegetables, legumes, fruit, wholegrain and high- fibre foods to your meals.
- Limit your intake of red meat.
- Choose lean cuts of meat and trim as much fat as possible before cooking.
- Swap a serve of red meat for another variety of protein. Sources of protein include fish, chicken, eggs, legumes, tofu, nuts, wholegrains, soya and dairy products.
- Avoid processed meats like ham, bacon and deli meats or eat only occasionally.
- Try reduced-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese. Choose varieties that are also low in added sugars or salt.
- Eat fish a couple of times a week.
- Add fruit and yoghurt to wholegrain cereal or serve some vegetables such as mushrooms with your eggs and wholegrain toast.
- Adapt your recipes to include more vegetables and legumes (e.g. add grated carrot and zucchini, celery, capsicum, beans or lentils to pasta sauces).
- Limit the portion size of your meals and snacks.
- 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, salt and kilojoules.
- Don’t add salt to food during cooking or before eating. Add flavour with herbs and spices.
- Grill, poach, slow roast and stir-fry rather than deep fry.
- Steam or microwave to maintain their nutritional goodness.
For more, see Food and nutrition.
Podcast for people affected by cancer
Prof Michael Jefford, Medical Oncologist and Director, Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Lucy Bailey, Nurse Counsellor, Cancer Council Queensland; Philip Bullas, Consumer; Dr Kate Gunn, Clinical Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Rural Health, University of South Australia, SA; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Prof David Joske, Clinical Haematologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and Clinical Professor of Medicine, The University of Western Australia, WA; Kim Kerin-Ayres, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cancer Survivorship, Concord Hospital, NSW; Sally Littlewood, Physiotherapist, Seymour Health, VIC; Georgina Lohse, Social Worker, GV Health,VIC; Melanie Moore, Exercise Physiologist and Clinical Supervisor, University of Canberra Cancer Wellness Clinic, ACT; June Savva, Senior Clinician Dietitian, Nutrition and Dietetics, Monash Cancer Centre, Monash Health, VIC; Dr Elysia Thornton-Benko, Specialist General Practitioner and Research Fellow, University of New South Wales, NSW; Prof Janette Vardy, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre and Professor of Cancer Medicine, The University of Sydney, NSW; Lyndell Wills, Consumer.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.