According to the American Cancer Society, there will be more than 1,762,450 new cancer cases diagnosed in the U.S. this year. Although no food, special diet, or supplement can prevent cancer, some foods may lower the risk, such as leafy green vegetables, berries, and whole grains. However, there are also foods that may increase a person's risk for specific types of cancer. By eliminating or reducing notably carcinogenic foods from our diets, we may be able to reduce our chances of developing cancer.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans are eating more meat than ever, around 222 pounds each year, per person. Processed meats including sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni, packaged lunch meat, beef jerky, ham, and bacon may increase the odds of developing colorectal cancer. The World Health Organization warns that daily consumption of even one hot dog or a few strips of bacon increases cancer risk by 18%. Processed meats are any that have been cured, smoked, salted, canned, or dried. They contain nitrates, preservatives added to enhance flavor and deter bacteria growth. Nitrates also occur naturally in fresh foods. Researchers can anecdotally link them to cancer, though the research is inconclusive and ongoing.
A study in the International Journal of Cancer showed a connection between esophageal cancer and hot beverages. Consuming a beverage such as hot tea at temperatures higher than 140 degrees causes thermal damage to the cells that line the esophagus and may be responsible for this increased risk. Those who drink hot beverages before letting them cool, and also consume alcohol and smoke cigarettes, increase their chances of developing esophageal cancer five-fold.
Some overcooked or burnt foods, mainly meat forms chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These chemicals are the result of amino acids, sugars, and creatinine reacting at high temperatures. The juices that drip down onto an open flame or heat source create smoke that releases PAHs, which then adhere to the surface of the meat. Meats cooked at temperatures of 300 degrees Fahrenheit or above or those meats cooked for very long periods, form HCAs. Acrylamides form when starchy foods cook until they are dark brown. Some studies link the consumption of these compounds to ovarian and endometrial cancers, though definitive evidence is still lacking.
Even small amounts of alcohol increase the risk of developing cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Alcohol consumption is linked to 5.6% of all new cancers and 4% of cancer deaths. Heavy or regular alcohol use also increases the likelihood of developing cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, and rectum. Genetics play a role in a person's chances of developing cancer as a result of drinking alcohol. Genes encode the enzymes involved in metabolizing alcohol. Individuals of East Asian heritage may carry a version of the gene that speeds the conversion of alcohol to a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. Those who carry this gene have a higher chance of developing esophageal cancer.
Milk and other dairy products like cheese are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, but studies show that the calcium they contain may lower the risk of colorectal and other types of cancer. However, a high intake of dairy products may increase the possibility of prostate cancer, according to the Physicians Health Study, a 28-year study of more than 21,000 people. Subjects who consumed more than 2.5 servings of dairy products each day were more likely to develop prostate cancer.
People who eat a diet high in refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, pasta, soft drinks, and fruit juices are more likely to develop colon cancer than those who consume mostly whole grains and complex carbohydrates such as fresh vegetables and fruits. Studies support the probability that high blood glucose and insulin levels in the body increase inflammation and along with it, the risk of cancer. The glycemic index measures how fast carbohydrates turn into sugar in the blood. A 2016 study linked excess consumption of high glycemic index foods to an 88% greater risk for prostate cancer.
Cancer studies in the United Kingdom note a higher incidence of nasopharyngeal cancer among those who regularly consume salt-cured fish, a popular dish in China. Research also indicates that eating pickled foods may increase the risk of stomach cancer. According to a study in the American Association for Cancer Research journal, of the 1 million new cases of gastric cancer diagnosed each year, more than half occur in Eastern Asia. Researchers noted a 50% greater likelihood of gastric cancer associated with the consumption of pickled foods, with a higher number of cases in China and Korea.
Studies show eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week can increase the chance of colorectal cancer. Some studies also link processed meats with a higher incidence of colon cancer. Doctors suggest introducing meat-free days and generally cutting back on the amount of red meat consumed. People should avoid overcooking red meat, which produces chemicals that may increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
Popcorn is a fiber-rich, low-fat, healthy snack, but it comes with some caveats. The lining of the bag used to make microwave popcorn contains perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) to resist grease and prevent leaking. PFCs also exist in Teflon pans, pizza boxes, and sandwich wrappers. These PFCs break down into perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical some researchers believe causes cancer. A majority of Americans have PFCs in their blood, so research is ongoing to determine if these compounds are related to cancer or another disease and what level of harm they carry. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, microwave popcorn accounts for more than 20% of the PFOA levels in Americans.
For many years, there has been a controversy surrounding the use of food dyes. Numerous studies show many dyes adversely affect laboratory animals. As a result, government agencies have banned several types. The Food and Drug Administration has approved nine food dyes for use in the U.S., including Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, and Yellow No. 6. Health researchers and food safety officials express concerns over their continued use, but manufacturers continue to add them to candies, sports drinks, baked goods, salad dressings, and even medications. Research indicates these dyes contain carcinogens such as benzidine and cause cancer in lab animals. As these dyes do not enhance the nutritional quality or safety of foods or medications, scientists continue to argue that they should not be added to food products.
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