The Possible Connection Between Calorie-Rich Foods and Cancer Risk in Women

Key Takeaways:

  • Despite being at a healthy weight, women who consume high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods may be slightly more at risk of obesity-related cancers, according to a study of 92,000 American women.
  • The connection between high-calorie diet and cancer risk was most noticeable in women of healthy weight, suggesting that having a slim physique does not necessarily guarantee metabolic health.
  • High-calorie food consumers typically have lower intake of plant-based foods, potentially missing out on nutrients that can help reduce the risk of specific types of cancers.
  • The women who consumed the most calorie-dense foods were 12 to 18% more likely to develop an obesity-related cancer, compared to women with fewer such foods in their diets.
  • The study’s findings echo the dietary recommendations from the American Cancer Society and similar organizations to eat more plant-based foods for overall good health.

Even if they maintain a healthy weight, women who consume high-calorie foods may be marginally more susceptible to obesity-related cancers, a recent study suggests.

Summary of the Study

Investigating a group of 92,000 American women, the study observed a 10% increase in the risk of obesity-associated cancers in women who regularly consumed high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods. These included items such as processed snacks, fast foods and sweets, suggestive of a potential association with types of cancer such as breast, colon, ovarian, kidney, and endometrial.

It’s important to note that a correlation between high-calorie food consumption and cancer risk was only apparent in women who were at a healthy weight. The researchers found this observation to be intriguing and slightly surprising. They had initially hypothesized that the connection between calorie-dense diets and cancer would primarily appear in obese women.

Impact of Metabolism

This research might cause some to believe that if they are of a normal weight, they’re safe. As Cynthia Thomson, the study’s lead researcher, points out, this is not always the case. A slim physique doesn’t always correlate with metabolic health. Being “metabolically healthy” is maintaining normal levels of components such as blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides, amongst others.

The researchers suggest that “metabolic dysregulation” could partially explain the heightened cancer risk observed in the study.

The Role of Plant-Based Foods

Those who frequently consume high-calorie foods typically consume fewer plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. This implies that they might be deficient in certain nutrients – fiber, vitamins, etc., that might help reduce the risk of specific types of cancers.

“What’s wrong with calorie-dense foods? By definition, they pack a lot of calories relative to their weight,” comments Marji McCullough, strategic director of nutritional epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, who was not associated with the study. Additionally, she explained that not all calorie-dense foods are inherently bad. Some, like olive oil and nuts, are indeed healthy. However, most high-calorie foods are relatively poor in nutrients.

Findings of the Study

Seeking an understanding of this perplexing phenomenon, the research was conducted on over 92,000 women between the ages of 50 and 79. Upon their entry into the study, these women provided comprehensive details regarding their dietary habits. From this information, the research team calculated the calorie-density of each participant’s regular diet.

Over a span of 15 years, nearly 9,600 women developed a cancer that has been ascribed to obesity. An association, though not necessarily a causative correlation, was observed between a predilection for high-calorie foods and a slight increase in the overall likelihood of women developing cancer.

However, upon closer inspection, this association only held true among women of normal weight. The women who consumed the most calorie-dense foods (those in the top 40% of participants) were 12 to 18% more prone to develop an obesity-related cancer, as compared to women whose diets contained fewer of such foods.

What about Overweight Women?

What was particularly interesting was the lack of a correlation between diet quality and heavier women. McCullough speculated that the effect of their excess weight might simply overshadow any potential impact of the diet. Another possibility, according to Thomson, is that normal-weight women who ate a lot of calorie-dense foods might have gained weight more dramatically.


The take-home message from this research, according to McCullough, is simple: “Eat more plant-based foods.” It aligns with the dietary recommendations from the American Cancer Society and similar organizations, emphasizing benefits beyond just weight control. A plant-based diet is a cornerstone of overall good health.

The findings of this study were published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For more information about diet and related cancer risks, visit this American Cancer Society resource.

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