7 eating, drinking habits that increase your cancer risk
This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.
Following a healthy lifestyle, including eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods, can help decrease your cancer risk. While you can enjoy most foods in moderation, consuming certain ones can increase your risk of developing cancer. Here are some of the top offenders you should avoid as much as possible.
1. Processed meats
Processed meats were classified by The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, as a class 1 carcinogen in 2015, which means they're known to cause cancer. Processed meats are preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. Examples of processed meat include bacon, ham, hot dogs, salami and sausages. The methods of preserving these meats include nitrates, which are chemicals that are known to cause bowel and stomach cancer. To reduce your cancer risk, it's best to avoid processed meats as much as possible or eliminate them entirely.
2. Red meat
Red meat is also associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. Although red meat can be a good source of iron, protein and other micronutrients, most people in the Western world eat far too much red meat, with Canada having one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world. Consuming red and processed meat has been linked to 15 different types of cancer, including:
To decrease your risk, you shouldn't eat more than one serving of red meat per week. If you do eat red meat, you may be able to mitigate your risk of developing cancer by eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. A study of more than 50,000 people in Alberta found that those who consumed red meat along with a high intake of fruits and vegetables had less risk of developing several cancers.
3. Sugary drinks
Although sugar itself doesn't cause cancer, drinking sugary drinks — including pop and 100 per cent fruit juice — has been associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. Sugar consumption is linked to obesity, which is a risk factor in 13 types of cancer. Sugary drinks are sweetened with sugar, corn syrup or other sweeteners that have calories. Some examples include:
These beverages don't have any nutritional value and don't fill you up. Most people don't consume fewer calories in the rest of their diet when they drink sugary drinks, leading to weight gain.
4. Highly processed foods
Eating highly processed foods has been associated with an increased risk of overall cancer and breast cancer. Highly processed foods contain added salt, sugar and saturated fat, and include examples such as:
Chips and pretzels
Sauces, including dressings and gravies
Muffins, cakes and cookies
French fries, burgers and other fast food
Frozen pizza and pasta
Foods that are preserved by drying, canning or freezing can be part of a healthy diet. If you eat highly processed foods, check the ingredients to find those that have little or no added sodium, sugar or saturated fat.
5. Refined carbohydrates
Carbohydrates can be an important part of a healthy diet. However, refined carbohydrates have been stripped of their fibre and nutritional content, and can be easily digested, causing your blood sugar to spike. Fibre plays an important role in preventing some types of cancer. Eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates is associated with a significantly increased risk of developing prostate and breast cancer. Refined carbohydrates include foods such as:
Waffles and pancakes
You can cut down on your consumption of refined carbs by substituting complex carbs instead. Choose brown rice instead of white rice, baked goods made with whole grains and eat oatmeal instead of refined breakfast cereals.
You may have heard that alcohol, particularly red wine, is good for your health. While it's true that consuming red wine in moderation is associated with fewer heart attacks, all types of alcohol are associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk is of developing cancer. Drinking alcohol is positively associated with developing six types of cancer, including:
Mouth and throat cancer
Colon and rectal cancer
Voice box cancer
Three-quarters of Canadians report drinking alcohol in the past year, making it the most commonly used substance in Canada. The Canadian Cancer Society funded a study that found that limiting alcohol intake could prevent 44,300 cases of cancer by 2042.
7. Charred meat
Everyone loves a barbecue, but grilling your meat may increase your cancer risk, since charring your food carbonizes the proteins and sugars in it. Charring meat, fish and poultry causes heterocyclic amines (HCAs) to form, which are substances that may cause cancer. Here are some ways you can enjoy grilled food and lower your risk of cancer:
Marinate meat for 30 minutes before cooking
Precook your meat away from the grill to reduce exposure time
Cook at lower temperatures using indirect heat
Cut off charred areas before you eat
Consider grilling fruits and vegetables, which don't form HCAs even when they're charred
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