Dr. Kritika Gupta

Published on February 23rd, 2023 | by Kritika Gupta


Dr. Kritika Gupta: “Cereal, Frozen Pizzas, and Other Ready to (H)eat Food: Headed to Cancer?”

Recently, a study on the relationship between consuming ultra-processed foods and chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease, conducted by authors at Imperial College London, rightly received global news coverage. The relationship between ultra-processed foods and cancer is complex and not fully understood.

However, this study adds a great amount of evidence that ultra-processed foods such as carbonated drinks, ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat foods, industrial-processed breads, sausage, and other processed or reconstituted meat products, industrial-processed desserts, sauces ad spreads, breakfast cereals, packaged salty snacks, and alcoholic drinks can lead to cancer of not one but 34 different sites of cancer. These cancer sites can be located nearly anywhere in the body.

Usually, nutrition research studies attempting to find a connection between diet and disease are infamous for small sample sizes. This study, however, analyzes data of 197,426 participants who completed 24-hour dietary recalls between 2009 and 2012. The data excluded at least 12,680 individuals who had pre-existing cancers. The follow ups were conducted until 2021. At a median of 9.8 years of follow up, 15,921 individuals had developed cancer and 4,009 cancer related deaths occurred.

What is wrong with ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods often contain high amounts of sugar, unhealthy fats, and artificial ingredients, which can contribute to weight gain, inflammation, and oxidative stress. These factors have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Additionally, many ultra-processed foods are high in salt and preservatives, which can also be harmful to health. Of course, there are many other factors that can contribute to cancer risk, including genetics, lifestyle habits, and environmental factors. However, eating a diet that is rich in whole, unprocessed foods and low in ultra-processed foods is generally considered to be a healthy choice for reducing cancer risk.

Why do we keep eating ultra-processed foods?

We continue to buy and consume ultra-processed foods because of convenience, affordability, marketing and advertising, taste, and lack of knowledge. Today when a dozen eggs cost around 8 bucks, no doubt that a common man is forced to buy cheap, packaged food, at the cost of their health.

What can we do?

Here are few steps you can consider to reduce overall consumption of ultra-processed foods. However, I understand that based on your income, lifestyle, access to healthier alternatives, and a number of other factors, some of these may not work for you. Trust me though, in long-term the benefit of these costs, would make it worth it

Plan your meals: Plan your meals and snacks in advance, and make sure to include plenty of whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

Shop the perimeter of the grocery store: The outer aisles of the grocery store are typically where you’ll find the freshest, least processed foods. Try to focus your shopping on these areas and avoid the inner aisles where ultra-processed foods are often found.

Read food labels: When shopping, take the time to read food labels and look for products that are minimally processed and contain few artificial ingredients.

Cook at home: Cooking at home allows you to control the ingredients that go into your meals, and to choose healthier, whole food options.

Stock your pantry and refrigerator with healthy options: Keep healthy snacks and ingredients on hand, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds, so you have healthier options readily available when you’re hungry.

Avoid impulse purchases: When you’re hungry and in a rush, you may be more likely to make unhealthy food choices. Avoid impulse purchases by having a snack or meal before you go grocery shopping.

Find healthy alternatives: Experiment with new recipes and ingredients to find healthy alternatives to ultra-processed foods. 

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About the Author

Dr. Kritika Gupta holds Ph.D. in Nutrition. She currently works at the Center for Research Evaluation at the University of Mississippi. She is passionate about community-centered health promotion projects, health education projects, social determinants, and food insecurity research. Dr. Gupta gave TEDx talk "Resilience to Hunger" in 2020 and it is available on YouTube.

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