Ultra-Processed Foods and Colorectal Cancer Risk

The British Medical Journal, one of the most well-respected medical publications, published the results of 3 studies that showed an association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and colorectal cancer risk.

The studies included relatively huge numbers of participants, totaling well over 150,000 people combined. These prospective studies used health metrics and food questionnaires over several years to determine risk. Here are some of the findings:

  • “Compared with those in the lowest fifth of ultra-processed food consumption, men in the highest fifth of consumption had a 29% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer”
  • “Among subgroups of ultra-processed foods, higher consumption of meat/poultry/seafood based ready-to-eat products…and sugar sweetened beverages…among men and ready-to-eat/heat mixed dishes among women…was associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer”

What are ultra-processed foods?

  • Make up about 57% of daily calories consumed by adults in US
  • Contribute to weight gain and obesity
  • Negatively impact gut microbiome (the bacteria that live in your gut)
  • Contain high amounts of sugar, oils/fats, refined starch
  • Contain minimal nutrition value
  • Contain additives like emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners, which can also negatively impact the gut microbiome and contribute to inflammation

Examples: chips, cereals, sauces, sausage and other processed meats (salami, bologna, hot dogs, etc.), many packaged dressings, pastries, snack foods, many snack bars, crackers, cookies, pre-made meals (canned and frozen), soda, energy drinks, etc.

The authors continue:

  • “Furthermore, potential carcinogens may also be formed during the processing of meats containing sodium nitrates (for example, nitrosamines) or heat treatment (for example, acrylamide) or may migrate from the packaging of ultra-processed foods (for example, bisphenol A).”
  • “High consumption of total ultra-processed foods in men and certain subgroups of ultra-processed foods in men and women was associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer”

What does this mean for you?

  • Limit the amount of ultra-processed foods you eat.
    • Think of ultra-processed foods as those with long ingredient lists or that contain ingredients you would not eat as foods themselves (like chemical-sounding names).
    • Try to limit these in a way that makes sense for you, such as reducing it to one serving daily or only a couple servings on weekends – the goal is to minimize these for your long-term health.

The best foods to eat are those in their whole form, i.e. how they are in nature (like apples, rice, cauliflower, eggs, etc.), and those that are minimally processed (like roasted nuts, frozen vegetables (plain, no sauce), homemade chicken soup, etc.).

Reference: https://www.bmj.com/content/378/bmj-2021-068921

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