Ultra-processed foods and their link to cancer

By: Osler Health International
Posted on: 30 Aug 2023

Ultra-processed food and its link to cancer | Osler Health

From our favourite bag of snack chips to the frozen dinner that we pop into the microwave or a sugary drink, ultra-processed foods are all too easy to reach for in our busy lives. They’re quick, they’re easy, and often delicious (and can be very moreish!). Beyond adding on the few unwanted calories, surely they can’t be that bad? Or are they?

What is ultra-processed food?

Unlike regular foods, ultra-processed foods are more than just the sum of its parts. They undergo a litany of alterations – refining, pounding, heating, melting, shaping, and extrusion, to name just a few. These foods are often a cocktail of fats, salts, artificial colours, preservatives and added sugars. And don’t be surprised if you find a blend of synthetic additives thrown into the mix, from colours and flavours to stabilisers.

This intensive processing doesn’t just change the texture or taste of foods. They have already simplified the ingredients such that our body absorbs them alarmingly quickly. Like a fast-forward button for calorie absorption, this often leads us to take in more calories than we otherwise would.

But the concerns extend beyond mere calorie count. Increasingly, researchers are finding that the degree of processing itself can fundamentally change how food interacts with our bodies. Among these alarming revelations is the connection between ultra-processed foods and the risk of cancer.

Is ultra-processed food a cause of cancer?

The figures

One pivotal study from the UK provided illuminating insights into this concern. The results revealed that an increased consumption of ultra-processed foods directly correlated with a heightened risk of an individual developing and dying from cancer. To put this into perspective, the overall incidence of cancer rose by 2% for every 10% increment in ultra-processed food consumption.

The mortality statistics were equally grim, with a 10% dietary increase in ultra-processed food translating to a 6% elevation in overall cancer deaths, a 16% rise for breast cancer, and a whopping 30% spike for ovarian cancer.

Meanwhile, a US study identified an equally troubling connection. Men who consumed ultra-processed foods faced a 29% escalated risk of colorectal cancer. This brings us to an essential query: why does this link exist?

How does ultra-processed food cause cancer?

Understanding how ultra-processed foods can cause cancer is a topic of ongoing research. However, one major discovery centres around the gut’s microbiome – the universe of microbes residing primarily within our digestive system. This microbial community is paramount to our well-being, aiding digestion, fortifying our immune system, and shielding us from disease-causing pathogens.

Emerging evidence underscores the adverse impact of ultra-processed foods, especially those laden with saturated fats and sugars, on our microbiome. Consuming such foods can drastically alter the microbiome’s composition, shifting the balance in favour of harmful microbes and compromising the gut’s health. As the gut plays a pivotal role in overall health, these alterations strongly suggest why ultra-processed foods can cause cancer.

What can I do to mitigate my risks of cancer?

In an ideal world, avoiding ultra-processed foods would be the best course of action. However, only some of us are fortunate enough to have the resources to sidestep these products completely. For many of us, ultra-processed foods are hard to eliminate entirely. So, where does this leave those seeking a healthier, more balanced lifestyle?

Be pragmatic about dietary changes

Transitioning to a diet devoid of ultra-processed foods might seem overwhelming and, in many cases, not entirely pragmatic. As such, rather than striving for complete elimination, focus on how you can make manageable shifts. Begin by assessing your current habits and making small steps to gradually make ultra-processed foods the occasional treat rather than a staple.

Seeking professional guidance can also help streamline this transition. For instance, as an  international medical clinic in Singapore, Osler Health offers a Gut Health Programme to offer a review of your gut, health coaching, and support as you strive to improve your gut health and diet.

Understanding that the perfect diet is not a one-size-fits-all solution but one you can sustain, we suggest your meal plans focus on mainly plant-based foods. By accommodating your lifestyle and nutritional needs, we can ensure that your new diet is feasible for you in the long run.

Don’t forget about health screenings

Besides dietary changes, awareness and early detection through regular health screenings are crucial weapons in the fight against cancer. Through screenings at clinics like Osler Health, you can detect signs of conditions like cancer early, ensuring timely intervention and treatment before a condition escalates. Prioritising the wellbeing of you and your family, we offer women’s health screenings, men’s annual checkups, and health screenings for children.

Take control of your well-being with Osler Health

Early prevention and detection is key to managing and keeping health concerns at bay. Whether you’re seeking dietary advice, comprehensive health screenings, or simply looking for trusted medical insights, our team at Osler Health is happy to guide you and your family on the journey toward optimal health

Your health is an investment, not an expense. Don’t wait for a health scare to prioritise your well-being. Schedule an appointment with our clinic today to set the foundation for a brighter tomorrow.

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