The Link Between Processed Foods and Cancer

Karen Pasquazzi, RD, CSO, LDN
The link between processed foods and cancer

In the United States, the lifetime risk, for men and women, of being diagnosed with any cancer is 39.3 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. There is a wide array of research studies that show lifestyle factors, including diet, are among the most modifiable and important risk factors for cancer.

The latest research

A 2019 study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) suggested a possible link between “ultra-processed” foods and cancer.

The study defined ultra-processed foods as those lacking vitamins and fiber, which also contain high levels of sugar, fat and salt. They often represent as much as half of the daily energy intake in several developed countries. These types of food are often linked to obesity as well.

The list includes:

  • packaged bakery products
  • snacks
  • sugary cereals
  • fizzy drinks
  • deli meats and reconstituted meat products   

The BMJ study showed that a 10 percent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a 12 percent risk of overall cancer and an 11 percent risk of breast cancer.  These findings add to the strong body of evidence linking poor diet with overweight/obesity and cancer risk.  

Eating these types of foods, also known as a “Western type” diet, contribute to weight gain, overweight, obesity and 12 specific cancers – with a noted correlation between red or processed meat and colorectal cancer.

Take steps to reduce your overall cancer risk

The 2018 World Cancer Research Fund recommendations include limiting consumption of “fast foods” and other processed foods high in fat, starches and sugars as strategies for cancer prevention.

All the information available can be confusing and even conflicting at times. For instance, certain high fat foods containing oils of plant origin – such as nuts and seeds – are important sources of nutrients.  When eaten in moderation these have not been shown to cause weight gain and are important staples of a plant-based diet.

While there is no “one size fits all” approach to achieving a healthful diet and lifestyle, the key is to find balance, aim for moderation and opt to set realistic and achievable goals. It’s what you are doing daily that counts, especially as it relates to cancer prevention.

Set specific nutrition goals:

  • Eat more whole and minimally processed foods like seeds, legumes, grains, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Work toward eating a plant-based diet. A good start toward eating a plant-based diet would be to fill two thirds of your plate with colorful fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Fill the remaining third of your plate with fish, poultry, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, or plant-based proteins and legumes (e.g. black beans, chick peas, lentils, tofu, hummus), nuts, seeds.
  • Go meatless when you can. Otherwise, limit cooked red meat to no more than three portions per week, with each portion measuring between four and six ounces.
  • Try to avoid processed meats such as cold cuts/sandwich meats, bacon, hot dogs and chorizo, ham, pastrami, pepperoni, and salami.
  • Limit “energy dense foods.” These are foods that are high in added sugar and fat, and include French fries, potato and other chips, pastries, donuts, candy, and sugar-sweetened beverages.  Enjoy fresh fruit and fruit infused water instead as a snack.
  • Choose whole grain breads, pasta, and cereals such as oats, barley, and brown rice. Use these in place of foods made from refined flour like white bread, pasta, low fiber breakfast cereals, and white rice.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Avoid inactivity. With the approval of your physician aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise five days per week.

For more on ways to reduce your cancer risk, read this post on our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog. Go here for more in-depth information on the scientific public health guidelines for cancer prevention..

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