What Is the Link Between Diet and Melanoma?

By Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD

Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD
Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD

When it comes to sun safety, lathering on sunscreen, sporting broad-brimmed hats and staying in the shade surely come to mind. But diet and melanoma may also be linked.

Here is some information on the emerging research around obesity, antioxidant intake, vitamin D and other potential nutrition-related links to melanoma.

Obesity & Melanoma

At any age, maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important strategies for cancer prevention, including melanoma. While there have not been many in-depth studies on the topic, obesity is emerging as a potential risk factor for developing certain kinds of skin cancers.

Studies show overweight and obese men carry a 31 percent increased risk of malignant melanoma. Research continues on whether this risk is the same for women, however, women who were overweight or obese reported spending less time exposing skin to the sun. In fact, some studies have shown that women with a higher body mass index (BMI) may have a lower risk for developing malignant melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, compared to men with a high BMI.

Researchers in the UK have also identified a potential genetic link between obesity, overeating and melanoma risk.  They report that a variation in the FTO gene, called intron 8, may be a culprit in this connection and further study should be conducted.  Preliminary research in mice also shows caloric restriction may help slow melanoma cancer progression.

Antioxidants and Melanoma

Antioxidants, such as retinol, are important for a healthy immune system.  Studies have found that higher intake of retinol-rich foods, such as fish, milk, eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, and orange/yellow fruits and vegetables led to a 20 percent reduced risk of developing melanoma.

Studies have found that higher intake of retinol-rich foods, such as dark green leafy vegetables, and orange/yellow fruits and vegetables, such as those used in this Mexican Orange and Avocado Salad, led to a 20 percent reduced risk of developing melanoma.
Try using dark green leafy vegetables and orange/yellow fruits and vegetables in this Mexican Orange and Avocado Salad.

Studies show selenium-rich diets may also reduce risk for melanoma and support survivorship.  Foods rich in this antioxidant include Brazil nuts, scallops, lobster, barley, oats, whole wheat, wheat germ and milk.  Preliminary studies with green tea also show possible benefits in melanoma prevention, but research remains in its infancy.

Aim to get antioxidants from foods instead of supplements. Previous studies have linked high dose supplements to increased risk of certain cancers and diabetes.

Learn more about antioxidant supplements and how they can be incorporated into a healthy diet during and after cancer treatment.

Vitamin D

There is a lot of research on the relationship between vitamin D and cancer. Low blood levels of vitamin D have been associated with an increased risk for developing melanoma and worse survivorship outcomes.  It’s important to note that more is not always better; benefits do not continue to increase infinitely with more vitamin D intake, and there are risks associated with excessive vitamin D levels.  Keep an open conversation with your doctor about any vitamins or supplements you plan to take.

Learn more about healthy eating by visiting the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center Nutrition Services website, or by watching our Eating Well During Cancer series. You can also find healthy recipes in Dana-Farber’s Health Library or by downloading our Ask the Nutritionist app