Diets That Stimulate Chronic Inflammation May Increase the Risk of Cancer

We already know that a diet high in processed meat products is associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer, but a new study published in JAMA Oncology is helping to narrow down the reason for that correlation.

The long running survey of the dietary habits of 120,000 men and women suggests that the inflammation-promoting properties of foods could be a key factor in increased cancer risk.

Some inflammation is helpful as part of our immune response to fighting injury and infection. But chronic inflammation results when, for whatever reason, this immune response goes into overdrive. When that happens, our natural ability to fight off viruses and disease is hindered.

Among the ways we can reduce chronic inflammation and its side effects are exercise, weight control, medications, and diet.

When it comes to inflammation, diet can work both ways depending on our food choices. A healthy diet can decrease inflammation, while a poor diet — for example, one loaded up on bacon and processed meats — is a cause of chronic inflammation. Other foods that might contribute to inflammation include added sugars, excess vegetable oils, fried foods, refined flour, dairy, artificial sweeteners and additives, and saturated fats. Anti-inflammatory diets lean more toward fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and omega-3 fatty acids.

For the study referenced above, researchers classified the diets people ate on a scale from most anti-inflammatory to most pro-inflammatory, with several steps in between.

Even after taking into account potential confounding factors — such as the greater tendency of those with poor diets to be heavier and less physically active — the study found that men who ate the most pro-inflammatory foods developed colorectal cancer at a rate 44% higher than those eating the most anti-inflammatory diets. For women, the increased risk was less — only 22% — but still significant.

So what’s the bottom line?

Well, we don’t have to entirely cut the foods we enjoy from our diets. But if we’re eating a lot of this stuff, these highly processed grains and meats and sugars, now would be a good time to cut back and focus on a well-balanced variety of whole foods. Reduce the added sugars, add more whole grains, and switch out some of those processed meats for lean protein. Eat more fruits and vegetables and look for sources of omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon, flaxseeds, and walnuts).

Basically, just eat a Mediterranean diet. You can even thrown in a little bacon every once in a while.