Numerous factors contribute to the development of chronic diseases, including cancer. The relationship between diet and cancer risk is complex, with certain dietary patterns and food choices associated with an increased risk of cancer. This article explores how diet can influence the risk of developing cancer and emphasizes the importance of cancer prevention in the field of health.
Dietary Factors and Cancer Risk
In recent years, researchers have predicted that cancer will become the leading cause of death worldwide by the end of the century. As a result, cancer prevention has become a top priority in the field of health. While various factors can influence cancer risk, studies show that environmental causes, including dietary choices, play a crucial role. In the 1960s, researchers discovered that cancer rates varied across different countries and identified specific dietary habits that correlated with certain types of cancer. Interestingly, individuals who migrated from countries with a low cancer risk to countries with a higher risk experienced similar cancer rates, suggesting that diet and lifestyle significantly influence cancer development. Since then, researchers have identified specific foods and dietary habits that may increase the risk of certain cancers. It is, however, essential to consider other dietary risk factors such as alcohol and tobacco consumption as well.
Foods and Diets Linked to Cancer Risk
Studies on diet and cancer risk are ongoing, with researchers continuously striving to understand the relationship between dietary choices and cancer development.
Red and Processed Meats
Scientific evidence supports a close link between the consumption of processed meat and certain types of cancer. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified processed meat as a carcinogen, and unprocessed red meat as “probably” carcinogenic. A 2018 review revealed that consuming approximately 60 grams (g) of processed meat per day and 150 g of red meat per day increased the risk of colorectal cancer by about 20%. Furthermore, diets high in processed and red meats have also been associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer and breast cancer.
The cooking and smoking processes involved in the preparation of these meats can lead to the creation of compounds that cause cellular damage and initiate the development of cancer cells. Additionally, heme iron present in red and processed meats can have a toxic effect on cells, further contributing to cancer risk.
Ultra-processed foods often contain ingredients derived from industrial processing, such as protein isolates, hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, flavor enhancers, artificial sweeteners, and thickeners. Examples of ultra-processed foods and beverages include sweet and savory snacks, sodas, energy drinks, breakfast cereals, reconstituted meat products, frozen pizzas, and candies.
Research indicates that diets high in ultra-processed foods, including Western diets, significantly increase the risk of certain cancers. A comprehensive study in 2018, which involved data from nearly 105,000 individuals, demonstrated that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet correlated with a 12% higher risk of overall cancer and an 11% increased chance of developing breast cancer.
Ultra-processed foods are typically high in saturated fats, added sugar, and salt, while being low in protective nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Furthermore, the processing of these foods can lead to the formation of potentially carcinogenic compounds, such as heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Additionally, certain food additives and chemical contaminants present in food packaging can contribute to the increased risk of cancer associated with the consumption of ultra-processed foods.
It is worth noting that apart from cancer, the consumption of ultra-processed foods is also linked to other health issues including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.