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Ultra-processed foods and obesity could be behind ‘worrying’ rise in cancer among young people, top UK doctors warn

Poor diet and poor gut health are putting the UK facing a rise in cancer cases among under-50s, research suggests.

More and more young people are suffering from cancer, with diagnosis rates having increased by a quarter in twenty years.

Every day, around 100 young people – 35,000 per year – are diagnosed with cancers that are increasingly common among older people, such as those of the intestine, breast and stomach.

Scientists believe this “worrying” trend could be linked to people eating too many ultra-processed foods. Increasing cases of bowel cancer, for example, may be associated with changes in the gut microbiome reducing the body’s ability to deal with precancerous cells, according to a study presented at the world’s largest cancer conference.

Ultra-processed foods and obesity could be behind ‘worrying’ rise in cancer among young people, top UK doctors warn

The NOVA classification system, developed more than a decade ago, divides foods into four groups based on the degree of processing they have undergone.

Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said cancer still mainly affects older people, but scientists are alarmed by its increasing presence among younger people.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, he said: “Over recent decades there has been a marked increase in cancer incidence rates among young adults in the UK. » He added: “We don’t have a good answer as to why this is happening.”

The incidence rate of ‘early’ cases rose from 132.9 per 100,000 people in 1995 to 164.6 in 2019, according to Cancer Research UK’s analysis of the most recent data.

The overall incidence rate for all ages increased by 13 percent, from 539 per 100,000 people to 611.5 during this period.

Research from Ohio State University, presented at the Chicago meeting, found that those under 50 with bowel cancer had cells that appeared to be 15 years older than their actual age.

This suggests that Western diets impact the balance of bacteria and inflammation in the gut, which can cause “accelerated aging” of the colon.

More than a million children have had their height and weight measured under the National Child Measurement Program (NCMP).  Nationally, the rate among Year 6 children stands at more than a third, although it has fallen slightly since the start of Covid.

More than a million children have had their height and weight measured under the National Child Measurement Program (NCMP). Nationally, the rate among Year 6 children stands at more than a third, although it has fallen slightly since the start of Covid.

High-profile examples include Dame Deborah James, the activist and podcast host who died of bowel cancer in 2022, aged 40, and Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding, who died of bowel cancer. breast in 2021 at only 39 years old.

High-profile examples include Dame Deborah James, the activist and podcast host who died of bowel cancer in 2022, aged 40, and Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding, who died of bowel cancer. breast in 2021 at only 39 years old.

A bacteria called fusobacterium, linked to a diet low in fiber but high in sugar, has been shown to increase inflammation in the gut, increasing the risk of cancer.

The findings add to growing evidence that the disease can occur as a result of changes in the microbiome as well as damage from long-term swelling.

WHAT ARE ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS?

Ultra-processed foods are high in added fat, sugar and salt, low in protein and fiber and contain artificial colors, sweeteners and preservatives.

The term covers foods that contain ingredients that a person would not add when cooking at home, such as chemicals, colorings and preservatives.

Ready meals, ice cream, sausages, fried chicken and ketchup are some of the most popular examples.

They are different from processed foods, which are processed to make them last longer or enhance their taste, such as cold cuts, cheese and fresh bread.

Ultra-processed foods, such as sausages, cereals, biscuits, and soft drinks, are formulations composed primarily or entirely of food-derived substances and additives.

They contain little or no unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, seeds and eggs.

Foods typically contain sugar, oils, fats and salt, as well as additives such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilizers.

Ultra-processed foods are often presented as ready-to-eat, good-tasting and cheap.

Source: Open Food Facts

Professor Swanton said: “In some cases, associations may emerge whereby distinct microbial species may be associated with early-onset cancer risk.”

“What we are seeing in some studies is that some tumors from patients with early-onset colorectal cancer harbor mutations that could be initiated by these microbial species.”

“This suggests that some of these microbes could potentially initiate mutations in DNA.” This is no different from how tobacco smoke induces mutations in lung lining cells.

The global phenomenon made headlines in March when the Duchess of Wales announced she had been diagnosed with an undisclosed form of cancer following previous abdominal surgery, at the age of 42 years only.

Other high-profile examples include Dame Deborah James, the activist and podcast host who died of bowel cancer in 2022, aged 40, and Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding, who died of breast cancer in 2021 at just 39 years old.

Professor Swanton suggested that scientists were still “far from proving that these microbial species directly cause cancer”, adding that inflammation of the gut, often linked to obesity, was also a likely factor.

But the concern is so great that it has led Cancer Research UK to set up a ‘Grand Challenge’ research program to examine this and other possible causes.

Dr. Cathy Eng, a bowel cancer doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, said the increase in the disease among those under 50 is being seen globally and patients otherwise healthy patients increasingly had advanced bowel cancer in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s. .

She said: “They are not necessarily obese or unhealthy and you would have no idea they had cancer.”

“Research has correlated it with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and sedentary lifestyles, as well as links to tobacco and alcohol.”

“It’s not necessarily what you eat that matters, there is also some interesting research surrounding antibiotic use and what you put into your body from childhood.”

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