The topic of cancer risk in young adults is growing more alarming by the day, especially as we see more people under 50 getting diagnosed. It’s a head-scratcher because we usually associate cancer with older age. So what’s going on? While we’ve looked into genetics and environment, we haven’t given enough attention to what’s on our dinner plates. Could our love affair with ultra-processed foods be part of the problem?
Considering how our eating habits have changed so dramatically, it’s a question we can’t afford to ignore, especially for our younger folks. This article will explore the factors contributing to the rising cancer rates, emphasising the potential link between diet and cancer risk in young adults.
Table of Contents
An Emerging Global Epidemic
The “emerging global epidemic” label isn’t hyperbole when discussing the increasing cancer risk in young adults. New evidence showcases this as a worldwide issue, particularly alarming in wealthier countries. The numbers speak volumes: In the United States alone, gastrointestinal cancers, including colourectal types, are leading the pack in cancer risk in young adults. A report published in JAMA Network open highlights this disturbing acceleration. The troubling aspect is that this isn’t confined to one region; researchers have found a 79% increase in cancer risk in young adults globally over the last three decades.
Why the particular surge in wealthy nations? Theories often point to lifestyle factors—diet, lack of exercise, and excessive alcohol consumption, to name a few. Interestingly, rates of cancers like prostate and windpipe have shot up by over 66% since 2019. Breast cancer appears to be the most prevalent among young adults, with 13.7 cases per every 100,000 people, according to findings published in the BMJ.
Despite the advancements in cancer treatment and screening, which have indisputably saved lives, the consistent increase in early-onset cancers remains perplexing and unsettling. While genetics likely play a role, lifestyle factors, particularly dietary choices, cannot be ignored when discussing cancer risk in young adults.
The Rise of Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods have gained popularity for their affordability and convenience, raising concerns over their potential impact on cancer risk in young adults. These food items have undergone extensive processing and contain multiple ingredients, many of which are not commonly found in household kitchens. Additives like preservatives, colourants, and flavour enhancers are often included.
Examples of Ultra-processed Foods:
- Hot Dogs
A type of processed meat that contains not just meat but also a mix of preservatives, flavourings, and often artificial colourings. They are usually high in saturated fats and sodium, usually in a bun.
- Instant Ramen
These dehydrated noodle blocks come with a packet of flavouring powder or sauce. They contain artificial flavours, preservatives, and a high level of sodium.
Manufactured cookies are usually high in sugar trans fats and contain preservatives to extend shelf life. They may also contain artificial flavours and colours.
- Soft Drinks
Carbonated beverages are high in added sugars and may contain artificial flavours and colours. These drinks offer little to no nutritional value and are high in calories.
- Breakfast Cereals
Many are high in sugar and may contain artificial colours and preservatives. They often market themselves as rich in nutrients, usually added back artificially during processing.
- Chicken Nuggets
These are made from processed chicken meat that is breaded and deep-fried. They often contain preservatives artificial flavourings, and are high in fats.
- Microwave Popcorn
This convenient snack often contains trans fats and artificial flavours. The bags are often lined with chemicals that may have health risks.
- Candy Bars
High in sugar and fats, these often contain artificial flavours, colours, and preservatives. They are calorie-dense but nutrient-poor.
Dangers of Excess Calories and Lack of Fibre
While researchers are careful not to jump to conclusions, emerging data suggests that diet, specifically a diet high in ultra-processed foods, could contribute to the increasing cancer risk in young adults. As young adults increasingly fall prey to various types of cancers, understanding the role of diet becomes crucial for prevention and early intervention concerning cancer risk in young adults.
- Excess Calories Leading to Obesity
This excessive calorie consumption can result in weight gain, specifically increasing body mass index (BMI) to levels considered overweight or obese. Elevated BMI is associated with at least 13 different types of cancers, according to Francesca Castro, a clinical research dietitian nutritionist.
- Insulin Control and Hormonal Imbalance
Higher calorie diets, often rich in sugar and fats, can wreak havoc on insulin levels and hormone balance, leading to conditions like insulin resistance.
- Systematic Inflammation
High-calorie, low-nutrient foods often contribute to systemic inflammation, a condition already established as a precursor for various types of cancer, including gastrointestinal cancers.
- Gut Microbiota Imbalance
Excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods disrupts the natural balance of gut microbiota.
- Low Fibre Intake
Ultra-processed foods often lack fibre, which has been shown to have protective benefits against certain cancers, including colourectal and breast cancer.
- Nitrates in Processed Meats
Chemicals like nitrates, often added as preservatives in processed meats, have been shown to substantially increase cancer risk in animals and are associated with gastrointestinal, prostate, and breast cancer in humans.
- Lack of Whole Foods
Increased consumption of ultra-processed and processed meats often comes at the expense of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains.
- Lifestyle Factors in Wealthy Countries
In developed countries like the UK, rising cancer rates, particularly among younger populations, suggest that lifestyle factors, including diet, are significant contributors.
Lifestyle Changes for Prevention
The growing concern over increased cancer risk in young adults has many experts recommending lifestyle changes as a preventive measure. Young adults witnessing an uptick in cancer risk would do well to consider these preventive lifestyle strategies, especially given the rising cancer risk in young adults.
- Balanced Diet
Shift towards a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while minimising the intake of ultra-processed foods, red meat, and added sugars.
- Regular Exercise
Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. Physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of several types of cancers by improving metabolic rates and reducing body fat.
- Limit Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol has been linked to multiple types of cancer, including breast and liver cancer.
- Avoid Tobacco and Smoking
Smoking is a leading cause of several types of cancer. Quitting smoking or never starting is one of the most effective ways to lower cancer risk.
- Regular Screenings
- Manage Stress
Techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and regular exercise can help manage stress.
- Get Vaccinated
- Stay Hydrated
Although it’s not a direct cancer preventive measure, drinking adequate water can help flush out toxins and contribute to overall well-being.
Recommended Diets for Cancer Prevention
Though no diet can guarantee cancer prevention, specific dietary patterns have been linked to reduced cancer risk in young adults. By focusing on these, young adults can take active steps to lower their cancer risk while benefiting their overall health and specifically reducing the cancer risk in young adults.
- Plant-Based Diet
Plant-based diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains provides essential nutrients and antioxidants that fight cancer-causing free radicals.
- High-Fibre Foods
Foods high in fibre, like whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, have been shown to protect against colourectal and breast cancer.
- Fish Over Red Meat
Opt for fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids over red meat, which has been linked to an increased risk of colourectal and other cancers.
- Organic Produce
While still a matter of debate, some suggest that choosing organic produce can minimise exposure to pesticides that may be carcinogenic.
- Nuts and Seeds
Almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are rich in fibre and healthy fats that can be a part of a cancer-preventive diet.
- Green Tea
Rich in antioxidants, green tea has been shown to have cancer-fighting properties in some studies.
- Turmeric and Other Spices
Spices like turmeric contain curcumin, which has anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting properties, according to some research.
Your Diet, Your Future
Cancer rates are increasing among young adults, and diet seems to be part of why. We need more research, but let’s not wait around. Now’s the time for all of us, especially younger folks, to make healthier choices. What you eat and how you live today could make a big difference in your future, especially concerning cancer risk in young adults.