August 25, 2017

Energy-Dense Foods and Cancer Risk

Even people whose body mass is normal are at far greater risk for cancer if the food they eat offers few nutrients per calorie.

The way you eat may be increasing your risk of cancer, even if it’s not making you fat. If you live on chicken fingers, pizza and burgers — in other words, if you have a diet high in calories but low in nutrition — your risk for developing cancer is higher than it would be if you ate foods that pack more nutrients into each calorie.

The ratio of calories to nutrients in the food you eat is referred to as dietary energy density or DED. High-DED foods have more calories per gram of weight and include foods like burgers, pizza and processed foods; while fruits, veggies, lean protein and beans are considered low-DED foods because they provide plenty of nutrients in very few calories.

How do you eat the low-DED way? Less processed food, limited sugary desserts, fewer stops at drive-through windows, and more reliance on fruits, vegetables and fish.

Research shows dietary changes could prevent about 30 percent of cancers. To study the effect dietary energy density has on a person’s cancer risk, researchers at the University of Arizona studied the diets of 90,000 post-menopausal women who were part of the Women’s Health Initiative.

Women who ate a high-DED diet increased their risk of developing an obesity-related cancer by 10 percent, regardless of their body mass index (BMI). The risk appeared in women with a normal BMI who ate a high-DED diet.

“This finding suggests that weight management alone may not protect against obesity-related cancers should women favor a diet pattern indicative of high energy density,” Cynthia A. Thomson, lead investigator of the study and a professor at the University of Arizona, said in a statement.

Obesity is a known risk factor for breast, kidney, liver, pancreatic, endometrial, ovarian, colorectal, esophageal and gallbladder cancers, but it cannot be held solely responsible for the increased risk of cancer among women in the study. Women of normal weight who ate a high-DED diet may experience metabolic dysregulation regardless of their weight, theorized the researchers.

It isn’t known yet if dietary energy density affects cancer risk among young people or men. That will take more research. But this study may convince postmenopausal women to minimize the high-DED foods and maximize the low-DED foods they eat, even if they have managed to maintain a healthy weight through the years.

How do you eat the low-DED way? Less processed food, limited sugary desserts, fewer stops at drive-through windows, and more reliance on fruits, vegetables, fish, seafood, poultry, lean meat and beans. That’s how you do it.

The findings are published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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