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The link between ultra-processed foods and colon cancer in men. Learn what to eat and what to avoid.

They’re prepackaged and ready to eat. Pop them in the oven (or microwave) and you’re good to go. Frozen meals are tasty, convenient and a staple of the Standard American Diet (SAD). And sadly, a recent study published by the BMJ shows that eating larger amounts of them, and other ultra-processed foods like cold cuts, soda and prepackaged snacks and sweets, can lead to a 29% greater risk of developing colon cancer in men as compared to men who ate less.

Surprisingly, the risk did not appear to be as great for women.

The study covered nearly three decades and included more than 200,000 men and women in the United States (nearly 160,000 women and about 46,000 men) from three large studies of healthcare professionals.

Nitrates, preservatives and ingredients you can’t pronounce.

What is it about ultra-processed foods that makes them so harmful? Amitpal Johal, MD, division chief of gastroenterology at Geisinger explains.

“There are processed foods and there are ultra-processed foods,” he says. “Most processed foods contain two or three added ingredients — often some combination of salt, oil or sugar. In addition to those ingredients, ultra-processed foods are likely to contain artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives along with fats, starches, sugars and hydrogenated fats extracted from other foods. If it’s made in a factory and contains ingredients created in a lab, it’s ultra-processed — and something to avoid.”

Some red flags to watch for:

  • Maltodextrin

  • High-fructose corn syrup

  • Modified starch

  • Hydrogenated fats

Keeping your gut microbiome healthy

The gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in your intestinal tract. They play a big role in keeping you healthy — so long as you keep them healthy, too.

“Ultra-processed foods contain chemicals that may alter the healthy bacteria in the gut, which can worsen inflammation and lead to an increased risk of colorectal cancer,” says Dr. Johal. “They’re also low in beneficial nutrients and bioactive compounds, such as minerals and vitamins that support a healthy microbiome.”

Gut microbiome friendly foods:

  • Fiber-rich foods: Legumes, beans and fruits

  • Fermented foods: Yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir

  • Prebiotic foods: Artichokes, bananas, asparagus, oats and apples

  • Polyphenols: Plant compounds found in green tea, dark chocolate, whole grains, olive oil and red wine

Replace ultra-processed foods with unprocessed alternatives

Unprocessed foods are foods in their whole form that have all their vitamins and nutrients intact. Fruits and vegetables are great examples — especially those that are organic and haven’t been genetically modified.

“Reducing the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet and including things like fruits, vegetables, calcium, vitamin D and foods that are high in fiber can help reduce the risk of colon cancer,” says Dr. Johal. “Replacing sodas and energy drinks with water will also do wonders for your health. People use the term ‘food is medicine’. And honestly, given everything we’re learning about the gut microbiome, it’s absolutely true.”

Dr. Johal adds that exercise, proper sleep hygiene and controlling your weight also help protect against colon cancer — and are good strategies for avoiding heart disease and other cancers, too. He also advises men and women over 45 to schedule regular screening colonoscopies.

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