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Could Your Diet Be Linked To Cancer?

Could Your Diet Be Linked To Cancer?

Study observes possible link between ultra-processed foods and increased risk of cancer.

According to a recent study from the Imperial College of London, higher consumption of ultra-processed foods may be linked to an increased risk of not only developing cancer but succumbing to it.

The study examined the diets of 200,000 middle-aged adults and monitored their health over the course of 10 years, looking at both their risk of developing any type of cancer, as well as looking for specific risk of developing 34 particular cancers. Participants' odds of succumbing to cancer, if it developed, was also studied.

At the end of the study, researchers concluded that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer, particularly brain and ovarian cancers. The study also found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods correlated with increased risk of dying from cancer, especially ovarian and breast cancers.

Sarasota Memorial Clinical Dietitian Laura McLeroy, RD, LD, was not surprised by the findings, which she agrees are in line with growing evidence that ultra-processed foods are overall negatively impacting health.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods are more industrial products than food. They may have begun as food, but after being ground up, pasted, oversalted, covered in sugar, injected with 100 additives and preservatives and food dyes and binders, the end result is something that is all flavor, no nutrition.

And that's the point. Ultra-processed foods are manufactured to prey on our natural cravings for sweet and salty foods, cranking up those flavor profiles and addictive qualities while emptying the end product of nutritional value. Our taste buds want more, but our body is getting nothing beneficial from it.

Here are some good examples of the difference between minimally processed, processed and ultra-processed foods:

  • Minimally Processed: Corn, Apple, Potato, Wheat
  • Processed: Canned Corn, Apple Juice, Baked Potato, Flour
  • Ultra-Processed: Corn Chips, Apple Pie, French Fries, Cookies

All of the minimally processed foods could almost be described as unprocessed, as they're so close to their whole, natural form, with all of their naturally occurring nutrients. When they're processed, they may gain some added sugars or preservatives, or lose some fiber or starch, but they remain recognizable and full of nutrients. But by the time these foods are ultra-processed, most of their nutritional value has been cast off, in favor of salts and sugars and other taste-bud triggers that keep us snacking.

And as this latest study shows, it could affect more than just the waistline.

Food Is Medicine

It has long been documented that a diet high in ultra-processed foods is linked to a whole host of poor health outcomes, including obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. That this study would add cancer to the list makes a certain amount of sense to McLeroy.

"Ultra-processed foods tend to increase inflammation in our bodies," says McLeroy, "which may increase our risk of developing disease, including cancer." But likewise, she says that eating well can create the opposite effect, and that means including whole, unprocessed foods in your diet. "Unprocessed foods, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals, which are compounds that decrease inflammation," she says.

And she says it’s no coincidence that the American Cancer Society, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics all recommend eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables daily.

"So try substituting one ultra-processed food or snack with a serving of fruit or low-fat yogurt," McLeroy says. "Substitute soda with flavored seltzer water. Small changes in our diet can make a healthy impact over time."

Keep An Eye On The Label

One of the best ways to tell if something has been ultra-processed is to look at the nutrition label. If it's full of strange chemical compounds that you've never heard of, chances are that it's ultra-processed and chock full of extra sugars and salts.

For more information on how to navigate the newest nutritional labels, click here.

Learn More

To read more about the study from the Imperial College of London, click here.SMH Copywriter, Phil Lederer

Written by Sarasota Memorial copywriter Philip Lederer, MA, who crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. SMH's in-house wordsmith, Lederer earned his Master's degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy from Morehead State University, KY, and apparently has to stop eating Funyuns.

Posted: Jun 18, 2024,
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