You're likely aware that your diet has a huge impact on many, many aspects of your health. Even so, it may be staggering to find out just how many cases of cancer can be directly attributed to poor eating habits. But a new study from Tufts University set out to discover just that, and they identified five specific dietary factors that can significantly increase chances for a diagnosis.
The research team developed a risk assessment model based on previous research and analyzed dietary intake data for adult participants of various ethnic groups from the 2013-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, as well as the 2015 CDC cancer incidence report. They discovered approximately 80,110 incidences of cancer each year can be attributed solely to a poor diet—about five percent of cases. This is about the same as our country's alcohol-associated cancer burden—5.2 percent for men.
The largest impact on a cancer diagnosis came from not eating enough whole grains. That was followed by low dairy intake, high processed meat intake, low produce intake, high red meat consumption and sugary beverage consumption. Middle-aged men between 45 and 64 as well as ethnic minorities were the most likely to have a diet-associated cancer compared to other populations.
Colon and other rectal cancers had the highest number and proportion of dietary-related cases—about 38 percent. This lines up with much of the other research out there, as red and processed meats are linked to a 20-30 percent increase in colorectal cancer risk, while eating more whole grains can lower one's risk by 25-35 percent.
"Our findings underscore the opportunity to reduce cancer burden and disparities in the United States by improving food intake," said Fang Fang Zhang, lead author of the study, in a Tufts press release.
The authors mentioned their study did have some limitations, like their data being unable to determine how the association between dietary intake and cancer risk can evolve as we age. This risk percentage could also change depending on the year or time period.
The Bottom Line
Almost 40 percent of the US population is expected to receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, and some unfortunately receive multiple diagnoses. Many cancers are both preventable and reversible, and we should take advantage of the risk factors within our control like diet, exercise and alcohol use.
Plus, increasing your intake of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy dairy products all do wonders for other aspects of your health like your heart, microbiome, and waistline! And reducing our red and processed meat intake as well as sodas and other sugary beverages are definitely worth it.
While we aren't telling you to cut out steak and sugar forever, we do encourage you to make them smaller parts of your overall diet, and ramp up your consumption of produce and whole foods! Try our 30 Days of Whole Food Challenge or check out our Mediterranean and Clean Eating Diet Centers for meal plan and recipe inspo.