For the first time ever, research has established a strong connection between processed meats, three or more alcoholic drinks per day, excess weight, and stomach cancer, which afflicts twice as many men as women.
These three risk factors have already been tied to several other cancers, but their influence on stomach cancer — the third most deadly form of the disease — wasn’t clear-cut. But after pooling data from 89 studies including 17.5 million adults, the American Institute for Cancer Research determined it takes only 1.8 ounces of processed meat a day (that’s two strips of bacon or one hot dog) to increase your odds of stomach cancer by 18 percent. Additionally, the more booze you imbibe past two daily drinks, the higher your risk, and for every five-unit increase in body-mass index, your likelihood of stomach cancer jumps 23 percent.
The new AICR report also states that infections caused by the H. pylori bacteria, along with cigarette smoking, remain top risk factors for stomach cancer. In fact, smokers are up to 2.5 times more prone to stomach cancer than people who’ve never smoked, says Alice Bender, registered dietitian nutritionist and head of nutrition programs at AICR. However, setting these and all other causes aside, she says 15 percent of U.S. cases could be prevented by limiting processed meats and alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight.
According to Bender, processed meats may influence stomach cancer the same way they’re thought to increase colorectal cancer risk: Most include nitrates and nitrites. These compounds either occur naturally in meat or accumulate during smoking or other processing means. Also, red meats like beef, pork, and lamb contain heme iron. Nitrates, nitrites, and heme iron all go on to form n-nitroso compounds, which are known carcinogens.
“We recommend avoiding processed meat as much as possible because the risk begins at such a small amount when eaten daily,” Bender says. “Save sausage and bacon for special occasions. Limit all red meats to 18 ounces per week to protect against both stomach and colorectal cancers.”
When it comes to alcohol, Bender says the problem may stem from acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen that forms when the body processes booze. “Another possibility is that because alcohol is a solvent, it may allow carcinogens to move into cells more quickly,” she adds. “Alcohol is a significantly greater risk factor for men than women, although we don’t know why.” While this research review found a link between stomach cancer and three or more drinks a day, Bender insists it’s best to stop at two beers or glasses of wine — or don’t drink at all. More than two is when the risk for colorectal, liver, esophageal, and other cancers starts increasing.
Being overweight, already linked to 10 other cancers, can cause chronic inflammation, which creates an environment within the body that’s conducive to cancer-cell growth. “Excess fat can also lead to elevated levels of insulin and the hormone leptin, which further helps cancer thrive,” says Bender.
The main reason stomach cancer is so deadly is because it often goes undiagnosed. The symptoms can be nonexistent, vague, or shrugged off as gastrointestinal distress. “Many times people don’t have any idea they have stomach cancer until the symptoms get really bad,” says Bender. “Early detection would help save lives.” Preventing stomach cancer in the first place, by eating right and staying in shape, would surely save even more.