Your disease risk is made up of a long list of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors, but experts say one thing in particular has the greatest impact on your health: your diet. In fact, “poor diets are responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor globally and are the leading cause of obesity and non-communicable diseases,” says a 2022 study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). Now, experts are warning about one type of food in particular, which they say is linked with a 29 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer. Read on to learn which common food could be putting you in harm’s way, and why experts say we can all benefit from cutting back.
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According to a second 2022 study published in the British Medical Journal, men who frequently eat ultra-processed foods are at a 29 percent increased risk of developing colorectal cancer, compared with men who eat this type of food less frequently.
To determine how diet influenced colorectal cancer risk, the researchers behind the study—a group of scientists from Harvard University and Tufts University—reviewed questionnaire responses from over 200,000 individuals. The data were collected every four years over the course of 25 years, giving insights into the subjects’ long-term dietary habits and food frequency patterns. The team then classified those responses into quintiles, and ranked them from lowest consumption of ultra-processed foods to the highest. They found that men in the highest quintile were at highest risk of developing colorectal cancer.
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Experts say there may be several reasons that highly-processed foods are linked with cancer, besides their general lack of nutritive value. In particular, they cite the presence of cosmetic additives, food contact materials, neoformed compounds (NFCs), and our lessened ability to absorb nutrients from processed foods as some possible causes for increased cancer incidence.
According to Fang Fang Zhang, MD, PhD, a cancer epidemiologist and interim chair at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, these factors may alter gut microbiota and cause inflammation, ultimately making cancer more likely.
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The team learned that the products most closely linked to colorectal cancer in men were ready-to-eat meals which contained meat, poultry, or fish. “These products include some processed meats like sausages, bacon, ham, and fish cakes. This is consistent with our hypothesis,” Lu Wang, PhD, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School, told Science Direct. “Processed meats, most of which fall into the category of ultra-processed foods, are a strong risk factor for colorectal cancer. Ultra-processed foods are also high in added sugars and low in fiber, which contribute to weight gain and obesity, and obesity is an established risk factor for colorectal cancer,” she added.
The researchers also noted that higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, sweetened juices, and sugary milk-based beverages, in particular), were linked with an increased risk of colorectal cancer in men. This corroborates past research, including a 2021 study also published in BMJ, which came to the same conclusion.
Altogether, the study reviewed data from 159,907 women and 46,341 men. Though men who consumed high rates of ultra-processed food were found to be at a distinctly heightened risk for colorectal cancer, the researchers saw no such association in women who did the same.
“Further research will need to determine whether there is a true sex difference in the associations, or if null findings in women in this study were merely due to chance or some other uncontrolled confounding factors in women that mitigated the association,” said Mingyang Song, co-senior author on the study and assistant professor of clinical epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
However, both men and women are likely to see improved health outcomes when they limit their processed food intake. “Chemically processing foods can aid in extending shelf life, but many processed foods are less healthy than unprocessed alternatives,” says Zhang. “We need to make consumers aware of the risks associated with consuming unhealthy foods in quantity and make the healthier options easier to choose instead.”