The Stitch

New study shows highly processed foods increase risk for colon cancer

A study published earlier this month showed eating highly processed foods like hot dogs, soda and french fries lead to a greater risk of colon cancer.

A note book sitting on a table. A hand-written grocery list shows a need to purchase soda, hot dogs and salami. A pen rests next to the list.The study followed more than 200,000 U.S. healthcare workers over 24 years and found that men who ate more than nine servings of ultra-processed food a day had a 29% greater risk of colorectal cancer than men who had three daily servings. Previous research had linked these types of foods to cancer in general but this study specifically linked ultra-processed foods to colon cancer.

The study showed that processed meats like salami, sausages and hot dogs, as well as sugar-sweetened beverages were especially related to colon cancer.

“Ultra-processed foods have ingredients that have been linked to many cancers, and this study specifically shows the connection with colon cancer,” says Dr. Punam Parikh Amin, a colorectal surgeon and assistant professor in the Division of Surgical Oncology. “It’s important to avoid or at least reduce the amount of highly processed foods we eat. Avoiding highly processed foods and increasing fiber, vitamins and antioxidants can be protective against cancer or other infections and benign diseases of the colon such as diverticulosis.”

Foods considered ultra-processed have more artificial ingredients and contain flavorings, colorings or other additives. Amin stresses that sugar or artificially sweetened beverages including carbonated, caffeine-free/low calorie soda are ultra-processed. These beverages contain food additives and artificial sweeteners that can alter gut microbiome, promoting inflammation and colon cancer. Thankfully, ultra-processed food is a modifiable risk factor for colon cancer; individuals can lower their risk for colon cancer simply by making healthier dietary choices.

Importance of a colonoscopy

Punam Parikh Amin
Dr. Punam Parikh Amin

In addition to diet, regular screenings are important to colon and rectal cancer prevention, says Amin. At times, patients with colorectal cancer can present without signs/symptoms, so screening is essential.

Because of the increase in younger patients getting colon cancer, the screening guideline age has been lowered to age 45 from age 50 for the average risk individual. Those patients who have a family history of cancer, polyps or colitis should be getting screened even earlier than 45. Consult with your doctor to know when you should start getting a colonoscopy.

“Some patients who have not undergone a procedure requiring anesthesia may naturally feel nervous about getting a colonoscopy,” Amin says. “But the risks to this procedure are overwhelmingly low, and the amount gained is incredible. There is a survival advantage to finding colon and rectal cancer early where there is limited invasion of the colon or rectum wall versus late when the cancer can potentially spread to other organs.”

The combination of enduring bowel preparation (drinking laxative to clear bowels for proper evaluation) and anesthesia make some patients apprehensive. But Amin wants patients to know that current bowel preparation regimens and anesthetics have remarkably improved as compared to those administered in the past, and overall, patients tend to do well with both.

Colonoscopies offer not only prevention and diagnosis, but also treatment. “If a patient has a small polyp with cancer in it sometimes we can remove it right there during their colonoscopy so they don’t need surgery,” Dr. Amin says. Lastly, certain anorectal problems like hemorrhoids can also be addressed at the time of colonoscopy in appropriate candidates with a procedure called banding. Talk with your doctor to know if this may be applicable to you.

Learn more about the colorectal surgery program at Baylor Medicine.

By Tiffany Harston, communications associate in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine

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