Certain foods increase your risk of ovarian cancer — but there's a surprising way to prevent it

Processed foods appear to significantly raise your risk of ovarian cancer. But a prevention method is being touted

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published February 7, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Woman's reproductive health, concept (Getty Images/mi-viri)
Woman's reproductive health, concept (Getty Images/mi-viri)

The past few years haven't been good for people with ovaries. The end of Roe v. Wade, and the subsequent banning (or near-total banning) of abortion in many states, brought woe to those of us who desire control over our own reproductive organs. 

Now, it seems this new year is bringing yet more dismal health news for people with a uterus.

For every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food consumption, researchers estimated a 2 percent increase in developing any kind of cancer.

First, a study from researchers in the United Kingdom found a link between eating more junk food and a woman's increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. As a refresher, the term "ultra-processed" foods used in studies like these refer to foods that undergo a process that changes the food from its natural state. Ultra-processed foods are often made from extractions from "real" foods, like added fats, sugars, and starches. They're also a staple of the American diet: think microwave dinners, candy, chips and the like that you see on the snack aisle.

"They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers," Kathy McManus, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Director of the Dietetic Internship at the Brigham and Women's Hospital, explained. "Examples of these foods are frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks."

As explained in the journal eClinicalMedicine, researchers examined the habit of eating ultra-processed foods and the deaths and diagnoses of 34 different types of cancer. Thanks to data from the UK Biobank, a biomedical database, researchers studied the amount of ultra-processed food consumed by over 197,000 people. There was a wide range of consumption: on the low-end, ultra-processed food made up 9.1 percent of a person's diet. On the high end, it was estimated to make up 41.4 percent of their diet. Armed with this knowledge, researchers set out to look at different health outcomes for these two sides of the ultra-processed food consumption spectrum.

Researchers then compared eating habits with medical records that listed both diagnoses of cancer, and deaths by cancer. Through this analysis, they found a peculiar link: for every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food consumption, researchers estimated a 2 percent increase in developing any kind of cancer.

But that percentage got worse for people with ovaries. In fact, researchers estimated a 19 percent increase in diagnoses of ovarian cancer for the same interval.

The heightened risk also applied to not only being diagnosed, but dying from both ovarian and breast cancer. For each 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food consumption, there was a 16 percent increased likelihood in dying from breast cancer deaths and a 30 percent increased chance of dying from ovarian cancer — compared to the overall 6 percent increased likelihood of dying from any kind of cancer. 

"This study adds to the growing evidence that ultra-processed foods are likely to negatively impact our health including our risk for cancer," said Dr Eszter Vamos, lead senior author for the study, from Imperial College London's School of Public Health. "Although our study cannot prove causation, other available evidence shows that reducing ultra-processed foods in our diet could provide important health benefits."

Indeed, similar studies have found that the more someone consumes ultra-processed food, the higher the risk is for cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death for women — next to cancer. Not to mention that the American consumption of ultra-processed food has increased over the last two decades. 

But fret not, fellow ovary-possessors: there is a real, if invasive, means of reducing one's risk of ovarian cancer: surgically removing your fallopian tubes.

Indeed, the second ovary jab last week came via a surprising recommendation from the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance (OCRA)

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"As the fallopian tube is the origin of most high-grade serous cancers, fallopian tube removal has been shown to dramatically reduce risk for a later ovarian cancer diagnosis," OCRA said in its statement. "This has been referred to as 'opportunistic salpingectomy.'"

The recommendation came with a disheartening reality check: that despite efforts, a reliable, early ovarian cancer detection approach for average risk patients is still likely 10 to 20 years away. Currently, women can test to see if they have the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations which could indicate they have a very high risk for ovarian cancer. However, there are many other risk factors that aren't visible with a genetic test.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most women who get ovarian cancer aren't considered "high risk." Rather, there are several factors that can increase one's risk, such as simply being middle-aged or older, having family history of ovarian cancer or endometriosis.

While the recommendation is certainly surprising, many doctors in the field are agreeing it makes sense — as most ovarian cancer starts in the fallopian tubes. 

"Ovarian cancer is a relatively rare disease, and typically, we don't message to the general population," Audra Moran, president of the alliance, told The New York Times. "We want everyone with ovaries to know their risk level and know the actions they can take to help prevent ovarian cancer."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Cancer Furthering Health Ovarian Cancer Ultraprocessed Food Women's Health