Cancer warning: A ‘pro-inflammatory’ diet linked to an almost 50% higher risk of cancer

Deborah James discusses 'scary' bowel cancer symptoms

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The threat of cancer is ever-present but you can take steps to reduce your risk. That’s the encouraging conclusion of numerous studies examining the link between lifestyle and cancer risk. The role diet plays in the development of cancer is controversial but some concerning associations have been drawn over the years.

A 2018 study published in the journal JAMA Oncology suggests certain foods may trigger inflammation in the body that can increase a person’s risk for bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK. Most people diagnosed with it are over the age of 60.

Researchers followed the diets of more than 121,000 people (46,800 of whom were men) for 26 years.

Participants recorded what they ate, and their diets were scored based on the amount of foods consumed that are linked to inflammation, such as red and processed meats, sugary beverages, and refined grains.

People whose diets were the most “pro-inflammatory” had a 44 percent greater risk of developing bowel cancer compared with those who had low-inflammation diets, which often included high amounts of dark green leafy vegetables and whole grains, the researchers found.

Even after adjusting for other cancer-causing factors, such as high body mass index (BMI) and less physical activity, the risk for developing bowel cancer was still significantly elevated among those who had a pro-inflammatory diet.

Evidence published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition bolsters this association.

Researchers sought to evaluate the association between the inflammatory diets and the risk of breast cancer overall, by tumour subtypes and according to menopausal status.

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A total of 318,686 women from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) were followed for 14 years, among whom 13,246 incident breast cancer cases were identified.

Dietary inflammatory potential was characterised by an inflammatory score of the diet.

The researchers found a high inflammatory diet score was positively associated with breast cancer risk.

Adjusted for relevant confounders, each increase of one standard deviation of the score increased by four percent the risk of breast cancer.

Women in the highest quintile of the inflammatory diet score (indicating most pro-inflammatory diet) had a 12 percent increase in risk compared with those in the lowest quintile with a significant trend.

The association was more pronounced among premenopausal women.

The researchers concluded: “Women consuming more pro-inflammatory diets as measured by ISD [inflammatory diet score] are at increased risk for breast cancer, especially premenopausal women.”

What’s considered pro-inflammatory?

Foods with a higher pro-inflammatory potential are red meat, processed meat, and organ meat; refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, and many desserts; and sweetened beverages including colas and sports drinks.

Foods that have a higher anti-inflammatory potential are green leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens, and spinach; dark yellow vegetables such as winter and summer squash and yellow peppers; whole grains such as wheat berries, quinoa, whole-grain bread, and oatmeal; and fruits, tea, coffee, and wine.

These foods contain specific anti-inflammatory compounds such as carotenoids, flavonoids, vitamins, and fibre.

Bowel cancer – symptoms to spot

The symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and do not necessarily make you feel ill.

According to the NHS, more than 90 percent of people with bowel cancer have one of the following combinations of symptoms:

  • A persistent change in bowel habit – pooing more often, with looser, runnier poos and sometimes tummy (abdominal) pain
  • Blood in the poo without other symptoms of piles (haemorrhoids) – this makes it unlikely the cause is haemorrhoids
  • Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating – sometimes resulting in a reduction in the amount of food eaten and Weight loss.

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