6 Food Groups Associated with Cancer Risk

by Susan McQuillan M.S., RDN

New research narrows down food categories to the most helpful and most harmful.

Researchers say whole grains, dairy and fresh fruit help fight cancer.

Diet isn’t everything when it comes to your health, but it’s no news that what you eat on a regular basis plays an important role in determining whether or not you may succumb to chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular heart disease. And now, the findings of a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies from Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and published in the journal, JNCI Cancer Spectrum, also confirm that your food choices affect your risk of developing specific types of cancer, namely, colorectal cancer, stomach cancer, and cancers of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx. Of these, the largest number of cases linked to poor diet by far was for colorectal cancer. Most of the studies analyzed were supported by the World Cancer Research Fund International and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

The benefit of knowing which food groups are linked to higher and lower risk of cancer is that you are ultimately in control of your diet and therefore, armed with this information, you can make better food choices, if necessary. According to the study findings, diets that increase the risk of cancer are:

  • Low in whole grains
  • Low in fruits and vegetables
  • Low in dairy products
  • High in processed meats
  • High in red meats
  • High in sugar-sweetened beverages

A diet low in whole grains was linked to the most new cancer cases, followed by diets low in dairy, high processed meats, low in vegetables and fruits, high in red meat and high sugar-sweetened beverages. (Sugar-sweetened beverages were included in this analysis because of the known links between sugar and obesity and between obesity and at least 13 different types of cancer.) Estimates of diet-related cancer risk vary by age, gender, race/ethnicity and other individual factors but, overall, the researchers found all men, all Americans between the ages of 45 and 64, non-Hispanic blacks, and Hispanics to be among the highest risk groups.

This study, while important because it pinpoints specific areas of the diet that affect cancer risk, also appears to confirm what most health experts already know and advocate: A balanced diet, rich in whole, natural foods, with little in the way of processed foods, sugar, and red meat, appears to be the healthiest diet you can follow. A balanced diet means getting enough (and a wide variety) of the foods within each food group that are known to promote good health and, at the same time, as little as possible of the foods associated with health problems. At the same time, however, it’s equally important to follow the type of diet that works best for you, and that may be modified to accommodate your personal health needs, while helping to keep your weight within a healthy range. 

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