Study identifies 6 food groups linked to greater cancer risk: A well-balanced diet is best for overall health, advise researchers
12/05/2019 // Darnel Fernandez // Views

Diet may not be the only consideration when it comes to staying healthy, but it does play a vital role in overall health. What you eat on a regular basis can help determine whether or not you will develop chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity or heart disease. Now, more support for this idea has come from recent evidence which suggests that certain foods can increase your risk of cancer.

A study published in JNCI Cancer Spectrum estimates that about five percent of the total invasive cancer cases reported in 2015 were linked to poor diet. These findings are comparable to the cancer risk associated with alcohol consumption, which equates to four to six percent. Obesity, on the other hand, is associated with seven to eight percent of the cancer burden and physical inactivity takes two to three percent of the total invasive cancer diagnosis.

Watch what you eat

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the world, behind heart disease – responsible for one in every four deaths. In 2018, there were an estimated 1.8 million new cancer diagnoses in the US and over 600,000 Americans were predicted to die from cancer that same year.

In this new modeling study, researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy at Tufts sought to estimate the number, proportion and type of specific cancers associated with the over- or under-consumption of foods and sugar-sweetened beverages among American adults. This analysis is one of the very few studies that focused on the risk factors of cancer associated with food intake in the US.


To test their hypothesis, the researchers used a comparative risk assessment model that involved data from meta-analyses of cohort studies. These studies were mostly taken from the World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) Third Expert Report.

Their results showed a total of six diets associated with an increased risk of cancer:

  • High in red meat
  • High in processed meats
  • High in sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Low in fruits and vegetables
  • Low in whole grains
  • Low in dairy products

Diets low in whole grains and dairy, as well as diets high in processed and red meats, were found to be associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Low fruit and vegetable consumption, meanwhile, contributed to an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx and larynx. In addition, a diet high in processed meat saw an increased risk of stomach cancer. The researchers included the sugar-sweetened beverage variable in the study due to its link to obesity and 13 different types of cancer.

Of the diets mentioned, low whole grain intake was associated with the largest number of new cancer cases. This is followed by diets low in dairy, high in processed meats, low in vegetables and fruits, high in red meat and high in sugar-sweetened beverages. Their estimates could vary by age, gender or even ethnicity, but the researchers found that middle-aged American men and some ethnic groups such as non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics had the highest proportion of diet-related cancer burden compared to others.

The researchers emphasized the importance of eating a healthy and balanced diet – one that is rich in whole and natural foods – to reduce overall cancer risk and cancer burden. Having a balanced diet means getting enough food from within a variety of food groups to provide your body with the necessary nutrients to promote good health and curb the adverse health effects of some of the more problematic food groups, while also avoiding over-consumption from those problematic food groups. (Related: Pediatric cancer patients found to benefit from improved diet and exercise, boosting treatment success.)

“Our findings underscore the opportunity to reduce cancer burden and disparities in the United States by improving food intake,” said first author Fang Fang Zhang, M.D., a cancer and nutrition researcher.

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