By Gabe Mirkin, M.D.
A UK-based study followed the amounts of ultra-processed foods consumed by 200,000 middle-aged adults for 10 years (EClinicalMedicine, Jan 31, 2023 31;56:101840). The authors found that eating ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of developing cancer, particularly ovarian cancer, breast cancer and brain cancers. Each 10 per cent increase in ultra-processed foods was associated with:
• a 2 percent increased risk for all cancers
• a 19 percent increased risk for ovarian cancer
• a 6 percent increased rate of death from cancer
• a 16 percent increased rate of death from breast cancer
• a 30 percent increased rate of death from ovarian cancer
Several other studies have shown that eating ultra-processed foods is associated with increased cancer risk (Adv Nutr, (2021) 12:809–497). A review of 13 studies of 625,738 participants found that ultra-processed foods are associated with increased risk for colorectal cancer, colon cancer, and breast cancer, but not rectal or prostate cancer (Front Nutr, June 8, 2023;10:). Ultra-processed foods have also been associated with increased risk for type II diabetes (JAMA Intern Med, 2020;180(2):283-291), heart attacks (Lancet, Feb 2023;56:101840 UKBiobank), high blood pressure (Am J Hypertens, 2022;35:892–901), obesity (Curr Obes Rep, Dec 2017;6(4):420–431). and premature death (Curr Obes Rep, 2022;11:80–92).
Definition of Ultra-Processed Foods
The average North American adult takes in more than half of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods (Public Health Nutr, (2018) 21:1–4). These foods are often loaded with salt, saturated fats, sugars, and all sorts of additives to give color, flavor or consistency and to extend shelf life. They also are usually low in soluble fiber and resistant starches that help to reduce inflammation, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood pressure (Nutrients, Mar 2018;10(3):365). Ultra-processed foods include bottled soft drinks, ready-made meals, processed meats such as hot dogs, sausages, bacon, hamburgers, ham, salami and corned beef, fried foods such as French fries and potato chips, packaged snacks, sugar-added foods such as cookies, cakes, pastries, candies, doughnuts and ice cream, most dry breakfast cereals, fruit yogurts, instant soups, and most other foods that come in a package with a long list of ingredients. Definition of ultra-processed foods
A healthful plant-based diet that is low in ultra-processed foods should include a wide variety of different vegetables, nuts, seeds, avocados, berries, and other fruits, along with lots of whole grains and legumes, and healthful oils such as olive oil. It is also healthful to eat fish as long as you avoid very large fish that live long enough to take in a lot of heavy metals such as mercury.
• Eat lots of vegetables, fruits, beans, seeds, whole (unground) grains, nuts and other seeds
• Avoid sugared drinks including fruit juices
• Severely restrict all sugar-added foods and other refined carbohydrates
• Avoid meat from mammals
• Avoid processed meats
• Restrict fried foods
• Avoid alcohol; if you choose to drink, take no more than one drink a day
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.