Small Dietary Changes

Small Dietary Changes, Big Health Benefits: Lowering Cancer Risk with Non-Processed Foods

Are you concerned about your cancer risk? A new study from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) suggests that making a small change to your diet may significantly reduce your risk of cancer and thus improve longevity.

The study found that when 10% of ultra-processed foods were replaced with non-processed foods, the overall risk of cancer and of specific cancers, such as colon and postmenopausal breast cancers, decreased. Crucially, these results held true even when adjusted for other risk factors for cancer such as BMI, alcohol and dietary intake, and food quality.

So what are ultra-processed foods? They include foods like processed meats, fizzy drinks, packaged snacks, and ready meals. These foods typically contain eye-wateringly high levels of added sugar, salt, and fat, along with artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives. Unfortunately, these food have also been designed to taste great. 

The study’s findings suggest that the processing of food may play a role in cancer development. By replacing just a small portion of ultra-processed foods with non-processed options, you may be able to reduce your cancer risk.

Non-processed foods, by contrast, are foods that are minimally processed and remain close to their natural state. Examples, of course, include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

The EPIC study is a large-scale epidemiological study that has investigated the association between dietary intake and cancer risk. The study recruited over 500,000 participants from 23 centres across 10 European countries between 1991 and 2001. Participants completed dietary questionnaires and were followed up for an average of 15 years. The study used the NOVA food processing classification system to categorise foods based on their level of processing. This system categorises foods into four groups: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods.

The study found that a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a 12% increase in overall cancer risk. In contrast, a 10% increase in the proportion of unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with a 10% decrease in overall cancer risk. The study also found that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with an increased risk of specific types of cancer, including breast, colorectal, and throat cancer.

Overall, the study provides strong evidence that reducing the intake of ultra-processed foods and increasing the intake of unprocessed or minimally processed foods may lower the risk of developing cancer. It’s important to note that this study was a prospective cohort substitution study, meaning that it didn’t directly measure the effects of diet on cancer risk. Rather, it analysed the effects of substituting certain foods in the diet with other foods.

Despite this limitation, the study’s findings remain compelling. If you’re looking to reduce your cancer risk, consider making small changes to your diet. Replace processed snacks with fresh fruits or veggies or nuts, swap sugary drinks for water (I drink a lot of naturally flavoured sparkling water) or unsweetened tea, and choose whole grains over refined grains. By making these simple changes, you may be able to reduce your cancer risk and improve your overall healthspan.


Dr J Hugh Coyne

Private GP

Parsons Green, Fulham