Of all the health-sapping offerings in the Standard American Diet, processed foods are some of the worst.
We’ve written before about the dangerous world of food processing. Processed foods are designed to be cheap, convenient, and ultra-satisfying (often even addictive); they are devoid of nutrients, and in many cases are more like poison than food.
Even some foods and beverages that we don’t think of as “processed”—such as pasteurized milk, yogurt, and other dairy products—have had any trace of healthfulness processed out of them by the time they make it to store shelves.
Irradiation, pasteurization, refinement, and other common processing practices strip foods of their vital nutrients—and in place of actual nutrients, manufacturers add laboratory-created chemical cocktails (flavorings, texturants, preservatives, and more), many of which have been shown to negatively impact consumer health. Processed foods also nearly always have a higher content of total fat (especially trans fat, the worst kind), sugar, and salt (and not the healthy kind of salt), and lower fiber content.
Just remember this simple rule: nearly every food that undermines your health instead of supporting it comes in a bottle, box, or can.
Research confirms the importance of dietary lifestyle choices
Despite the voluminous evidence demonstrating the potential negative health effects of junk food and its many additives, there have been limited studies done on the general inclusion of processed foods in one’s diet over a long period of time.
However, a brand new study published in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) provides much-needed data on the subject. This population-based cohort study pooled dietary statistics from 104,980 participants over the course of ten years.
The researchers came to a worrying (though not surprising) conclusion: processed food intake is associated with higher overall cancer risk, and the correlation remained statistically significant even after adjusting for many different markers of lifestyle and the nutritional quality of each participant’s diet.
Even a 10% increase in processed food intake was associated with at least a 10% increase in cancer risk (especially breast cancer)—and the researchers believe that risk continues to increase when a higher percentage of one’s diet is comprised of processed food.
The study design was rigorous and comprehensive; it represents the first prospective study with sufficient consideration of the full spectrum of lifestyle variables that must be examined when defining the relationship between processed foods and cancer risk.
All participants were screened with a detailed questionnaire that addressed lifestyle, health history, and other sociodemographic variables, including age and date of birth, height and weight, sex, occupation, educational level, smoking and alcohol consumption status, number of children, physical activity level, dietary intakes, personal and family history of diseases, drug use (including hormonal treatments for menopause and oral contraceptives), and more.
Physical activity level was determined using a “validated seven-day International Physical Activity Questionnaire (IPAQ). And the means of defining “dietary intakes” was even more sophisticated: the researchers collected 24-hour dietary intake data from all participants every six months using a recording system “designed to register participants’ usual consumption for 3300 different food items. These were categorized according to their degree of processing by the NOVA classification.”
The study even identifies and lists many of the properties and components of processed foods that most heavily contribute to increased cancer risk: “neoformed contaminants” created during industrial processing, such as acrylamide, heterocyclic amines, and polycyclic aromatic carbons, toxins and endocrine disruptors in food packaging such as bisphenol A (BPA), and food additives such as sodium nitrite and titanium dioxide.
The future of cancer prevention
Conclusive studies such as this one are precisely what is needed to redefine the limited view held by mainstream medicine about proper diet and lifestyle. The study reports that “ultra-processed food products contribute to between 25% and 50% of total daily energy intake.” Given the grave health risks this kind of diet poses, it’s imperative that mainstream medicine begin advocating for lifestyle-based disease prevention (rather than simply treating symptoms after the fact with drugs).
In their introduction, the researchers take an important step in this direction by stating that “a balanced and diversified diet (along with avoidance of tobacco use and reduction in alcohol intake) should be considered one of the most important modifiable risk factors in the primary prevention of cancer.”
However, it’s still up to us to heed the warnings that such studies offer us. Processed foods are deeply integrated in our culture—they are cheap, convenient, and so well-marketed that we can barely go anywhere without being surrounded by them.
Making the effort to switch to a balanced, nutrient-dense diet requires a great deal of time and forethought, and must be a conscious choice (closely reading ingredient labels, seeking out high-quality products, and cooking at home are all very time-consuming practices). But this choice is not only worth the effort, but also a critically important one for avoiding cancer and other serious health conditions.
More than 90% of cancers are caused by a combination of diet, environment, and lifestyle (NOT genetics!). Starting today, you can slash your risk—simply by eating more of the right foods. Find out the top 10 when you download your FREE report now!