Risk factors for breast cancer in premenopausal women can be due to a number of different reasons, such as getting older, having a family history of breast cancer or having dense breasts. But now there’s growing research that suggests eating ultra-processed foods, may increase breast cancer risk.
Ultra-processed foods typically contain large amounts of trans fats, sugars, sodium, artificial flavouring and preservatives, all to make foods last longer on shelves and taste better.
Ultra-processed foods are also known for the essential nutrients they don’t contain — like fibre, vitamins, and minerals.
Examples of these foods include ready-to-eat salty snacks, biscuits, cakes and bread, most breakfast cereals, hot dogs and cold cuts, frozen meals, and fast food, cites Harvard Health Publishing.
Already linked with obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, ultra-processed foods are also a possible culprit in cancer, particularly breast cancer, recent research published in eClinical Medicine suggests.
For the study, researchers found that a higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with an increased risk of developing and dying from cancer, and that the risk of dying from breast cancer was even higher.
“For every 10 percent increase of ultra-processed food in a person’s diet, there was a 6 percent increased risk of dying from cancer overall and a 16 percent increased risk of dying from breast cancer,” says Kiara Chang, PhD, lead author of the study and research fellow at Imperial College London’s School of Public Health.
The study (which involved 197,426 participants between 40 and 69 years enrolled in the ongoing U.K. Biobank Trial), did not separate out premenopausal women, although they made up 27 percent of the total, Chang explains.
But another investigation by researchers at the International Agency for Research on Cancer focused exclusively on 1,050 premenopausal women from four Latin American countries between the ages of 20 and 45.
They found a positive and striking association between eating ultra-processed foods and breast cancer: An increase of 20 percent in calories from ultra-processed foods nearly doubled the risk of breast cancer.
The report, published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention, and Health, and known as the PRECAMA study, is the largest ongoing study of premenopausal breast cancer in Latin America, where the consumption of ultra-processed foods is rising rapidly.
“This study reports for the first time that the consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in young women from Latin American countries,” study authors wrote, noting that close to 27 percent of breast cancer in Latin America occurs in women between 20 and 45 years, and that cases in that age group are on the rise.
Ultra-Processed Foods Are Replacing Traditional Diets
Study investigators also pointed out that the population they studied is and has been undergoing a rapid change in diet and lifestyle in recent years, transitioning from a varied, traditional diet of whole foods such as corn tortillas, beans and other legumes, homemade soups and stews, and vegetables and fruits towards a more homogenous diet high in industrial ultra-processed foods.
Indeed, a recent report co-authored by the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization highlighted a 43 percent increase in the sale of ultra-processed foods and drinks in Latin America between 2000 and 2013.
The report also noted that the increase in North America during the same period was only about 3 percent.
Why only 3 percent in North America?
Because ultra-processed foods have already become a well-established part of the American diet. In fact, the United States and the United Kingdom lead the world in eating ultra-processed foods.
One study reported that more than 60 percent of daily calories in the average American diet come from ultra-processed foods, while another report found that 57 percent of the average U.K. diet is made up of ultra-processed foods.
Rates among young people are even higher: Research shows that in the United Kingdom, up to 80 percent of daily calories consumed by children come from ultra-processed foods and drinks.
It’s a similar story in the United States, where children, teens and young adults are the biggest consumers of ultra-processed foods (adults 45 years and older consume relatively less).
Meanwhile, research documenting the negative health consequences of eating ultra-processed foods continues to accumulate.
A meta-analysis of 43 studies published in 2020 in Nutrients found that eating ultra-processed foods was associated with at least one adverse health outcome such as weight gain, obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and depression.
Among children and teens, negative health effects included cardio-metabolic risks (such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and insulin resistance), weight gain, and asthma.
Avoid or Minimise How Much Ultra-Processed Food You Eat
Breast cancer is now the leading cancer diagnosis in women under age 50 in the United States, with rates increasing by nearly 8 percent between 2010 and 2019, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open.
And while a direct link between ultra-processed foods and breast cancer has not been proven, experts say the research indicates cause for concern.
“The risk association is strong enough to warrant caution about consuming excess ultra-processed foods in place of minimally processed foods,” says Simon N. Dankel, PhD, professor of clinical science at the Mohn Nutrition Research Laboratory at University of Bergen in Norway, and corresponding author of a recent meta-analysis on ultra-processed foods and cancer risk.
Interestingly, the study that found the United States and the United Kingdom are the biggest consumers of ultra-processed foods determined that Italy consumes the least, instead favouring a Mediterranean diet, which is widely regarded as one of the best in the world.
According to one study, the eating pattern, which emphasises fresh, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, fish, and olive oil, is associated with a variety of health benefits including reduced-risk of a variety of cancers such as breast cancer.
“While we are working to better understand the mechanisms linking ultra-processed food consumption to ill-health, it is important that we cut down on these foods and consume a diet based on unprocessed and minimally processed foods,” says Dr. Chang, offering a few tips for weeding out ultra-processed foods in a diet.
“A simple way to identify an ultra-processed food is to look at the list of ingredients,” Chang explains. “A product is ultra-processed if it includes food additives or anything we are unfamiliar with or don’t usually use in home cooking – things like emulsifiers, modified starch, flavour enhancers, and high-fructose corn syrup. “Products with a long shelf life or long list of ingredients are also likely ultra-processed,” she adds.
SOURCE: Everyday Health