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May 24, 2019

Low whole grain, dairy consumption may increase cancer risk

Tufts study examines seven dietary factors associated with cancer

Healthy Eating Cancer
Whole Grain Bread Caroline Attwood/

Insufficient whole grain consumption may increase the risk of cancer, according to a study by researchers at Tufts University in Boston.

Seven dietary factors may increase the risk of American adults developing cancer, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Tufts University.

Those factors were associated with an estimated 80,110 new cancer cases in 2015 among adults age 20 and older, according to the study. That represented about 5.2 percent of all new cancer cases – a burden that aligns closely with cancers associated with alcohol consumption and excessive body weight.

Three of the dietary factors were associated with the bulk of those cases – insufficient whole grain intake, low dairy consumption and excessive intake of processed meats.

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The four other factors include drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, eating high amounts of red meat and not eating enough fruit or vegetables.

Colorectal cancers made up an overwhelming majority of the cancer cases associated with poor dietary habits. Cancers of the mouth and throat also made up a significant number of cases.

Cancer Type Estimated Cases Due to Poor Dietary Habits
Colorectal 52,225 
 Mouth and Throat14,421 
 Corpus Uteri3,165 
 Breast (Post-menopausal)3,059 

Low whole grain intake was associated with an estimated 27,763 cancer cases – by far, the most of any dietary factor. Low dairy intake was second, with 17,962 cases, while high processed meat consumption was third, with 12,663 cases.

Federal dietary guidelines recommend adults get half of their grains from whole grains. But less than 20 percent of the grains consumed by U.S. adults are whole grains, researchers said.

A lack of public awareness may be contributing to low whole grain intake, researchers said. They suggested whole grain products be affixed with a standard, government-led label touting their benefits.

Federal dietary guidelines also call for adults to consume three dairy servings each day. But the average adult consumes less than half of that amount. Boosting dairy intake could reduce colorectal cancer cases, researchers said.

 Dietary FactorEstimated Cancer Cases 
Insufficient Whole Grain Intake 27,763 
Low Dairy Intake 17,962 
 High Processed Meat Consumption14,524 
 Insufficient Vegetable Intake12,663 
 Insufficient Fruit Intake7,927 
 High Red Meat Consumption5,689 
 High Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Intake3,119 

Researchers noted that red meat consumption has fallen over the last 15 years, but processed meat consumption has remained level. The average American adult consumes two ounces of processed meats each day – twice the recommended level.

Though processed meats have been classified as a carcinogen, researchers said the general public lacks awareness. They called for health warnings to be placed on foods containing processed meat.

Researchers found that men were more likely than women to develop a cancer associated with poor dietary habits. Men both had worse dietary intakes and worse cancer incidence rates.

Additionally, researchers found middle-aged adults (ages 45 to 64) and black and Hispanic Americans were more susceptible.

Researchers based their findings on a comparative risk model that included nationally representative data on dietary consumption and cancer incidence, among other factors. The study was published Thursday in the medical journal JNCI Cancer Spectrum.

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