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Will Eating Junk Food Put You at Risk for Cancer?

A diet high in junk food like soda pop or salty snacks significantly increases the risk of several types of cancer .

A lot of people are anxious about developing cancer. A poll in the UK found that 2/3 of those queried are very worried that they will get a cancer diagnosis. Many were concerned that they would not be able to get the right treatment or that the treatment would have devastating side effects. The survey did not ask whether people blame junk food consumption or a sedentary lifestyle, but perhaps it should have.

Poor Diet and Other Preventable Factors Lead to Many Cancers:

A new study shows that in the US, about two-fifths of new cancer cases among adults can be attributed to preventable risk factors (CA A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, July 11, 2024). The most prominent factor is smoking, which contributes to nearly a third of all deaths from cancer.

Sedentary lifestyle, excess alcohol consumption and obesity also contribute to the toll from cancer. Diets that are high in red and processed meats and low in vegetables and fruits appear to make people more susceptible as well. Ultraviolet radiation and infections with carcinogenic pathogens such as HPV play a role too.

Lung cancer contributes the most to preventable cancer mortality. However colorectal, liver and esophageal cancers also cause large numbers of deaths.

Negative Consequences of Ultra-Processed Food:

People who consume a lot of ultra-processed food (aka junk food) are at higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and metabolic disorders such as diabetes. Researchers in the UK added cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus to the list of possible outcomes.

The investigators analyzed data from more than 450,000 adults in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. These volunteers constitute the EPIC cohort. Scientists collected data on their diets and their health (European Journal of Nutrition, March 2024). The follow-up lasted 14 years on average.

Those who consumed 10 percent more ultra-processed foods were at 23 percent higher risk for head and neck cancers. In addition, their risk for esophageal adenocarcinoma was 24 percent higher than that of people consuming little or no junk food. Although the researchers had initially suspected that most of the risk could be attributed to increased body fat among junk food lovers, that did not turn out to be the case. Something else about ultra-processed foods may be responsible.

This is not the first study to find a link between junk food and cancer. Here are the details on one of the earlier studies with similar findings.

The NutriNet-Santé Study of Junk Food:

That seems to be the conclusion from a study published in The BMJ (Fiolet et al, BMJ, Feb. 14, 2018). The research, which followed the dietary habits and health of 104,980 French adults from 2009 to 2017 establishes a link between ultra-processed foods and an elevated risk of cancer. For every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food in the diet, the investigators saw a 12 percent increase risk of overall cancer. Breast cancer risk rose by 11 percent.

What Counts as Junk Food?

The researchers asked the study participants about their consumption of ultra-processed foods. Popular examples include sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages, packaged sweet or savory snacks, mass-produced packaged breads and buns, sugary cereals, instant noodles and soups, fish and chicken nuggets and shelf-stable ready meals. These food products make up one-fourth to one-half of calories consumed in many industrialized countries. They often contain hydrogenated oils, modified starches and protein isolates.

What Should You Be Eating?

The researchers contrasted these ultra-processed foods with minimally-processed foods. They include fruits, vegetables, beans, pasta, rice, eggs, milk, fish or meat prepared by freezing, chilling, cooking or fermenting. The authors of the study point out that this research question is of great interest to the NutriNet-Santé volunteers.

Learn More:

If you would like guidance on cooking delicious meals, check out  Recipes & Remedies From The People’s Pharmacy. It offers recipes from many of the nutrition researchers we have interviewed over the years.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Islami F et al, "Proportion and number of cancer cases and deaths attributable to potentially modifiable risk factors in the United States, 2019." CA A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, July 11, 2024. DOI: 10.3322/caac.21858
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