‘Junk food’ may increase cancer risk in ‘healthy weight’ women

‘Junk food’ may increase cancer risk in ‘healthy weight’ women: “Women who eat junk food such as burgers or pizza are increasing their risk of cancer even if they’re not overweight, new research has warned,” reports the Daily Mail.

The story is based on research from the US looking at the diet of postmenopausal women in the 1990s and then tracking the development of a variety of cancers over about 15 years.

“Junk food” is often defined as food that is rich in calories (energy dense food) but low in nutrients.

Having a diet high in energy dense foods, such as biscuits, chocolate and pizza was found to increase the risk of cancer in these women, specifically in those of a healthy weight, which was defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of between 18.5 and 24.9. This suggests that having a healthy weight does not necessarily protect against cancer risk.

However the connections between diet, lifestyle and cancer outcomes are complex, and while the researchers attempted to adjust their results for other factors, we cannot say with certainty that energy dense foods increase your cancer risk.

The analysis was limited to postmenopausal women and did not consider drink intake, such as sugary drinks and alcohol, which can also be high in calories.

Still, having a healthy, balanced diet will help you get all the nutrients you need and may reduce your risk of developing cancer.


The study was carried out by researchers from the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, the University of Arizona, the University of Iowa, Purdue University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and the University of California, all in the US.

The research was funded by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health and The University of Arizona Collaboratory for Metabolic Disease Prevention and Treatment. The Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) from which data was sourced is funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health; and US Department of Health and Human Services.


The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The UK media’s reporting of this US study was generally accurate, although it could have been more explicit about the fact that all women in the study were postmenopausal, meaning the results might not be applicable to all populations.

This was a prospective cohort study, meaning it looked at a large number of women over a number of years, with the aim of finding out if consuming energy dense foods increases the risk of cancer.


Cohort studies such as this are good at looking at trends in large numbers of people over time but cannot on their own prove cause and effect unless the links are strong and consistent.


It cannot be proven from this research that having an energy dense diet will result in increased risk of cancer.


The researchers took data from 92,295 women participating in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study in the US, a longitudinal study involving healthy, postmenopausal women recruited between 1995-1998 who were between 50 and 79 years old.

The association between an energy dense diet and cancer was investigated over an average 14.6 year follow up period.


The researchers excluded women who had a history of cancer, and those with a lack of

dietary data, missing BMI data, or who reported consuming fewer than 600 calories or more than 5,000 calories per day.


Diet was assessed by self-report at the start of the study using a food frequency questionnaire designed to estimate energy, nutrients and food weight.

Dietary energy density (DED) was calculated by dividing the daily energy intake (in kilocalories) from foods (but not drinks) by the portion size reported and corresponding weight in grams of these foods, as per the WHI database.


Cancer assessment at the start of the study was by self-report by participating women and then by self-report on a biannual basis at follow up, with the results also checked against medical records.


Obesity-related cancers were the outcome of interest and were defined using the American Institute of Cancer Research report of diet, physical activity, and cancer. Common obesity-related cancers include breast, colorectal and kidney cancers.


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