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Now Serving: Colorectal Cancer

Now Serving: Colorectal Cancer
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A new study links ultra-processed food with increased colorectal cancer in men.

If you needed any more reason to avoid ultra-processed foods, here’s some “food” for thought: a new study has found that consumption of these junk foods increases men’s risk for colorectal cancer by almost a third. Other studies have linked these foods to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and early death. Yet Americans get almost 60 percent of their calories from these foods, and that number seems to be increasing.

It’s difficult to overstate the damage to your health caused by these foods. They damage your gut microbiome, increasing levels of destructive bacteria. The high levels of starch and sugar lead to insulin resistance, development of adipose tissue, and chronic inflammation which is more difficult to deal with because of the damage done to the gut. These foods have a lot of calories but very few nutrients and bioactive compounds beneficial for the prevention of diseases like colorectal cancer.

The presence of additives, emulsifiers, and artificial sweeteners in these foods also increases the pro-inflammatory potential of the gut microbiome and thus promotes colon carcinogenesis. Processed meat products also contain carcinogenic substances like sodium nitrates and acrylamide. And let’s not forget the chemicals used in food packaging, which can include PFAS, BPA, and a host of other endocrine disruptors.

The researchers found that the strongest association with cancer came from processed meat, poultry, and fish-based products. Products in this category are ready to eat (or heat) sausages, bacon, ham, and fish cakes.

Interestingly, the study found that processed foods like yogurt were protective against colorectal cancer, which may help explain why there wasn’t a link between processed food consumption and cancer in women: it’s possible that the kinds of processed foods women eat are different than men.

The main takeaway is eat less ultra-processed food and more unprocessed or minimally processed food. This is often easier said than done, and even health-conscious consumers can have difficulty determining from food labels how healthy a food is. A good principle to apply: If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, it’s likely you’re looking at a processed food. The words of food writer Michael Pollan are instructive: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The idea is that ultra-processed food isn’t actually “food” but “food-like substances.” Another way to think of this is, don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

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