Poor Dietary Habits Found to be a Preventable Cause of Cancer

Processed Meat High Risk for Colon Cancer

A study by researchers at Tufts University published May 22, 2019 in JNCI Cancer Spectrum showed that poor dietary habits are a preventable cause of cancer in the United States. The lead author was Fang Fang Zhang, a cancer and nutrition researcher at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. The researchers estimate that 80,110 or 5.2% of new invasive cancer cases in adults age 20 and over in 2015 resulted from a poor diet. Of all the different kinds of cancers, colorectal cancer showed the highest numbers of new diet-related cancer cases. Middle-aged men aged 45-64 and ethnic and racial minorities had the highest rates.

Association of Seven Dietary Risk Factors with 15 Types of Cancer

Low intake of:

  • Whole grains
  • Dairy products
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits

High intake of:

  • Processed meats
  • Red meats
  • Sugar Sweetened Beverages (SSB)

Number and Percentage of Cancer Cases Associated with Inadequate Diet

  • Cancer of the colon and rectum – 52225 new cases (38.3%)
  • Cancer of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx – 14421 new cases (25.9%)
  • Cancer of the Uterus – 3165 new cases (6.1%)
  • Breast (post-menopausal) – 3059 new cases (1.5%)
  • Kidney cancer – 2017 new cases (3.9%)
  • Stomach cancer – 1564 new cases (6.8%)
  • Liver cancer – 1000 new cases (3.1%)
  • Pancreas – 538 new cases (1.2%)
  • Esophagus (adenocarcinoma) – 475 new cases (4.6%),
  • Thyroid cancer – 415 new cases (0.9%)
  • Prostate (advanced) – 274 new cases (0.9%)
  • Multiple myeloma – 240 new cases (1.1%)
  • Ovary – 173 new cases (0.8%)
  • Gallbladder cancer – 105 new cases (2.8%),

Three Leading Dietary Factors Associated with Cancer

  1. Low whole grain intake
  2. Low dairy intake
  3. High processed meat intake

Two leading dietary factors Associated with Obesity and Cancer

  1. Low fruit intake
  2. High sugar sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption

Diet- Associated Cancer Cases and Age, Gender and Race/Ethnicity

The number of diet-associated cancer cases was highest among seniors age 65 and older.

Minorities (non-Hispanic blacks, Hispanics, and others) higher than non-Hispanic whites.

Diet-Associated Cancer Compared with Alcohol Intake, Obesity and Physical Activity

Diet-associated cancer was:

  • The same as alcohol intake (4-6%),
  • Slightly lower than excessive body weight (7-8%)
  • Higher than physical inactivity (2-3%).


The researchers stress the importance of dealing with unhealthy poor diet at the population-level in order to reduce the burden of cancer in the United States. It is necessary to increase the awareness of eating whole grained breads and cereals.

They also note that while the consumption of red meat in the United States has dropped, there has been no change in the consumption of processed meats such as ham, sausage, deli meat, hot dogs, bacon, salami, pastrami, corned beef, pepperoni, cured meat, canned meat, bratwurst and jerky.

Food-PRICE initiative

The study is a part of the Food Policy Review and Intervention Cost-Effectiveness (Food-PRICE) research initiative, a National Institutes of Health-funded collaboration led by researchers at the Friedman School at Tufts University working to identify cost-effective nutrition strategies to improve population health in the United States.

Processed Meat

Cancer causing substances are formed when meats are processed by smoking, salting, curing and they also have added cancer causing chemical preservatives like nitrates and nitrites. The University of Texas Anderson Cancer Center offers tips to substitute healthier foods in place of processed meats such as:

  • Add grilled chicken, hard-boiled egg, beans, tofu or tuna chunks to your salad instead of cubed deli meat.
  • Order a grilled chicken or fish sandwich instead of a deli sandwich.
  • Add vegetables to your omelet instead of bacon, ham or sausage.

You can download and print their processed meat guide.

Choose a Rehab or Skilled Nursing Care Facility that Offers Healthy Food

If you or your loved on are in need of short-term rehabilitation or long-term skilled nursing care choose a facility like Park Crescent Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in East Orange, New Jersey. Park Crescent offers fine dining with a healthy and nutritious cuisine.


Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease, and it certainly pays to follow a good healthy diet and avoid dangerous cancer causing foods like processed meats and sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs). For more about preventing cancer see our blog post from March 7, 2019.

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