Although there’s so much that still needs to be investigated about every type of cancer, researchers are increasingly looking at the effects certain lifestyle habits have on breast cancer risk. And brand new research points to one particular type of food that could be associated with its development—and no, it’s not dairy.
A new scientific review published in Advances in Nutrition suggests that even if you don’t have a family history of the disease, your risk may be elevated with processed meats. Researchers looked at 75 studies examining the links between dietary consumption of certain foods and breast cancer incidence. They focused on food groups like grains, fruits and vegetables, eggs, dairy, fish, poultry, red meat, processed meat, legume, soy, and sugar-sweetened beverages. (Related: The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.)
The big takeaways? The researchers found a decreased risk with higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, soybeans, and even cheese, but an increased risk with red meat—especially with processed meat. This includes options like hot dogs, sausages, cured bacon and ham, and deli meats.
However, this is certainly not the first time this type of food choice has been singled out as potentially problematic for overall health. MD Anderson Cancer Center put out a report in 2016 noting that when processed meats are preserved, cancer-causing substances form and research shows that can increase the risk of stomach and colorectal cancer.
Although they suggest eating as little as possible, taking an “everything in moderation” approach, other organizations are more aggressive in their recommendations. For example, the American Institute of Cancer Research recommends avoiding processed meats altogether, and to limit red meat (pork, lamb, deer, beef, etc.) to less than 18 ounces per week.
Part of the reason processed meat is so problematic is that it also tends to “bump” healthier options from meals, so those who eat more of it may be getting fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, according to nutrition researcher Fang Fang Zhang, MD, PhD, of Tufts University.
“If you add in other poor dietary choices along with processed meat, such as highly processed grains and sugar-sweetened beverages, then you’re increasing your risks even more,” she says. “In previous research, we estimated that more than 80,000 new invasive cancer cases in the U.S. among adults aged 20 and older were linked with poor diet, and processed meats are a large part of that.”
If you can’t stand to go bacon-free, one step that does help lower your risk of breast cancer—and other cancers—is to significantly boost your consumption of foods known to be beneficial, like vegetables and whole grains. For tips, check out 15 Best Frozen Fruits & Vegetables to Keep on Hand.