Eating too many instant foods is associated with a higher risk of cancer.

By Jaime Milan
February 20, 2018
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Photo: Westend61 / Getty

You already know it’s not healthy to eat microwave meals, fast-food nuggets or bags of chips—but according to a new study, a diet that includes these things even just a few times a week is associated with a major health drawback.

Research from The BMJ has found a correlation between those who eat ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of cancer.

Ultra-processed foods are products that use additives such as sweeteners, emulsifiers, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors. They’re often high in calories, and high in sugar, fat, and sodium.

One way to easily spot ultra-processed foods? Take a look at the nutrition label—if you spot a laundry list of unpronounceable or unrecognizable ingredients, there’s a good chance it’s ultra-processed.

According to the study, ultra-processed foods include things like cakes, chicken nuggets, sodas, processed meat, instant noodles, and chocolate bars. But it also includes mass-produced bread, and "frozen or shelf-stable ready meals." So even if those meals claim to be healthy, they may not be (here are 4 "healthy" buzzwords to beware of when shopping).

Researchers observed the diets of over 100,000 adults who used a system called NOVA to log their meals. Researchers then catalogued the 3,300 foods subjects ate by how “processed” they were.

The study found that a 10% increase in eating ultra-processed foods was associated with a 12% increased risk of cancer—and an 11% increased risk of breast cancer.

The study says, “Ultra-processed fats and sauces, sugary products, and drinks were associated with an increased risk of overall cancer, and ultra-processed sugary products were associated with risk of breast cancer."

It's important to note that more studies have to be done before anyone can say that eating ultra-processed foods cause cancer. This study just found a correlation. There may be other factors relating to people who eat more ultra-processed foods that negatively affect their health.

The bottom line: A balanced diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables beats out packaged foods with no nutritional value any day.