Study finds Western diet increases risk of cancer, especially in women

A diet heavy in refined grains, processed meats and sugary drinks could significantly increase your risk of colorectal cancer, a new study has found. Maren Caruso

There’s more bad news for lovers of red meat and refined grains — also known as a Western diet — from cancer researchers. A new study has found that a pro-inflammatory diet that’s heavy in processed red and organ meat, refined grains, and sugary drinks, will significantly increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer in both men and women.

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Published in the journal JAMA Oncology, the study followed more than 120,000 adults over 26 years and found that inflammation is a potential link between diet and cancer development. Researchers found a 44-per-cent risk increase for men, and 22-per-cent for women who consumed a pro-inflammatory diet (even after adjusting for other factors, such as high body mass index and decreased physical activity).

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“The evidence of this association had already been shown to be fairly consistent in men, but our findings have also found a robust association in women,” lead study author Fred Tabung, a research associate in the department of nutrition at Harvard, said to Global News.

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“In addition, previous studies had been conducted using a nutrient-based index that included supplements. Our study used a different index based on specific foods that cause inflammation, thus allowing us to look at inflammation as a potential link between dietary patterns and colorectal cancer.”

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Until now, the focus has been on processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon and certain cold cuts, which have been found to increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Tabung’s study has instead isolated a dietary pattern as being pro-inflammatory and therefore of greater danger.

“People don’t just eat one type of food; they eat in patterns,” he says. “This [Western diet] pattern captures the inflammation-causing foods that we know are linked to cancer.” And since we know diet is one of the factors responsible for stimulating the body to an inflammatory state, changing it is key to cancer prevention.
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The foods that are prevalent in the Western diet include red, processed and organ meat, refined grains and sugary beverages. It’s a dietary pattern that’s low in coffee, tea, leafy green and dark yellow vegetables, whole grains and wine.

“Unlike an injury, where inflammation is seen through pain, redness and swelling, low-grade chronic systemic inflammation doesn’t have any overt signs or symptoms. When you eat a pro-inflammatory diet, it’s the accumulated effects over years that lead to cancer,” Tabung says. “That’s why it’s difficult for people to associate their eating pattern with cancer. But we know there’s an association.”

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Experts point to the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in whole grains, lean protein and fish, and lots of fruits and vegetables, as ideal for keeping inflammation levels in the body in check. And yes, it also includes alcohol. However, Tabung points out, we’re not to interpret wine as a protective element.

“Moderate alcohol that’s consumed during meals has been shown to be good for you, but the idea is to limit the quantities,” he says. “Because we know that alcohol itself is a risk factor for cancer.”

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