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Study Links a Diet of Highly Processed Food with Risk of Cancer

Doctors and nutritionists have long suspected that the Western diet of highly processed foods, high in sugars and chemical additives, is bad for our health. Earlier this year, we read about a comprehensive medical study that showed for the first time what could be an alarming correlation between ultra-processed foods and some kinds of cancer. The study, described in this Time Magazine article, should cause all of us to pause next time we reach for a sugary drink or fattening snack.

The Worst Offenders: “Ultra-Processed” Foods

This major research study appeared in the medical magazine called The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal). French scientists studied the eating habits and resulting health problems of 150,000 French men and women, focusing special attention on how many of them consumed what are called “ultra-processed” foods, which tend to be high in fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium. According to Time, these types of foods make up more than 60 percent of the calories consumed by Americans. The study revealed that a 10 percent increase in consumption of these unhealthy foods resulted in a 12 percent higher risk of cancer. According to Time, “The paper is the first to explore the link between cancer and ultra-processed foods — that is, industrial formulations that typically contain many ingredients, including some not found in the typical kitchen.”  (When we read the labels on some of these foods, we have to suspect that most of the ingredients come from a chemistry lab, not a kitchen pantry.)

Even though the research could not definitively prove that eating ultra-processed foods actually caused people to contract cancer, researchers called this high degree of correlation between poor diet and cancer “striking.”

A Five-Year Study

Researchers tracked study participants for five full years. “During the five years of study follow-up,” says the article, “about 2,200 people were diagnosed with cancer. In addition to the 12 percent increase in overall cancer risk, the researchers found that eating processed food regularly was linked to an 11 percent increase in the odds of getting breast cancer and a ‘borderline significant’ increase in the risk of colorectal cancer.” But the study also seemed to show that some types of processed foods are worse than others. As Time put it, “Drinks, sugary products, fats and sauces were most strongly associated with a heightened cancer risk, according to the paper, while sugary processed foods were most strongly linked to breast cancer.”

Researchers have several theories about why highly-processed foods can trigger such a deadly reaction. One theory is that the contents of these foods cause inflammation which is closely linked to cancer. Others suggest that many of the chemical additives are actually carcinogenic, both in the foods and in the packaging they come in. It may also turn out that something in the way these foods are processed creates chemical compounds that carry unhealthy risks. Whatever the underlying causes, says Time, it may not be cause for panic but it certainly seems like a good time to reexamine your own diet and – especially if you’re caring for an older loved one – the diet of those closest to you.

Malnutrition Widespread Among Seniors

In researching this topic a bit further, we came across this helpful article on a website called SparkPeople. It’s not especially recent – in fact it was written a decade ago – but the subject fits in well with the topic of dietary health and its effect on seniors. This article is not focused specifically on highly processed foods but on the major problem of senior nutrition in general. “Eating well is important at any age,” the article begins. “But health issues and physical limitations sometimes make it difficult for seniors, the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, to get the nutrients they need for a balanced diet.” According to this particular health author, poor nutrition and malnutrition occur in 15 to 50 percent of the elderly population. That’s a staggering number of people adversely affected by poor eating habits. What’s worse, some of the symptoms of malnutrition, such as weight loss, disorientation, confusion or light-headedness, can easily be misdiagnosed as some other, more serious illness.

There may be many reasons why seniors eat poorly. Some may rely on the types of heavily-processed foods we discussed earlier because these foods tend to be cheap and convenient. Some seniors skip meals due to financial strain, frailty or loneliness. They may even be suffering with dental problems that they’re too embarrassed to talk about. Whatever the reasons, there are several things this article suggests that can help you guide your aging loved one into healthier eating habits. Here are just a few:

  • Help them purchase foods that are “nutritionally dense” – whole, unprocessed foods that pack a lot of nutrition and calories into fairly small servings.
  • Make eating a social event, especially if the senior you care about lives alone.
  • Encourage healthy snacking – especially fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Take them to the store – or help them order online. Make shopping more fun.
  • Don’t overlook the need for regular reminders to eat, since cognitive impairment is often linked to poor nutritional habits.

The Right Advice

These are just a few of the many suggestions in this article. As we read these two, from Time Magazine and SparkPeople, we realize again how important it is for seniors to get solid, professional and objective advice about every aspect of growing older. That certainly applies in the area of retirement planning. Instead of relying on a so-called investment advisor or insurance consultant who has a product to sell, we encourage you to seek the advice of an experienced professional like Rajiv Nagaich from AgingOptions. Rajiv will show you how all the pieces of your retirement plan need to fit together, just like the pieces of a puzzle: financial, legal, medical, housing and family. The result is a seamless plan called a LifePlan, a blueprint that will guide you as you create the fruitful and secure retirement of your dreams.

Why not invest just a few hours and find out more? Join Rajiv Nagaich at an upcoming LifePlanning Seminar – a free session packed with valuable information to show you what a wonderful experience retirement can be. For dates, times and locations, click here – then register online or call us during the week. We’ll look forward to meeting you and answering your retirement questions.

(originally reported at www.time.com and www.sparkpeople.com)