Arnold School study links anti-inflammatory diet to reduced cancer risks

November 20, 2014

Dr. Susan Steck

Dr. Susan Steck

Connections between chronic inflammation and increased risk of cancer and other health disorders have led researchers to develop a tool that ranks a person’s diet according to an index of foods that lead to pro- or anti-inflammatory effects. This dietary inflammatory index ranks 45 foods, nutrients and phytochemicals for their inflammatory properties.

Using this index, Arnold School researchers partnered with University of Minnesota colleagues to assess the diets of more than 34,000 cancer-free women to determine the relative level of inflammation they consumed. They then monitored their health to observe whether they remained cancer-free.

The results indicated that women who consumed higher levels of pro-inflammatory dietary factors faced a 20 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer compared to women whose diet scores reflected a greater intake of anti-inflammatory dietary factors. In particular, the authors found diets high in anti-inflammatory elements such as fiber, spices, carotenoids and healthy fats reduced the risk of colorectal cancer for research participants.

“We know that diet influences inflammation, and inflammation is associated with colorectal cancer,” explained Dr. Susan Steck, a co-author on the study. “These new results show a direct link between the inflammatory potential of diet and risk of colorectal cancer.”

The study, published in Cancer Epidemiology and Biomarkers Prevention, concludes that individuals can take steps to increase their consumption of anti-inflammatory foods to reduce inflammation effects, which can in turn reduce cancer risks. This means choosing more fruits, nuts, green leafy vegetables, fish and whole grains over pro-inflammatory foods, such as red meat and processed foods containing trans fat. The Arnold School team members consisted of lead author Nitin Shivappa, a postdoctoral fellow with the Cancer Prevention and Control Program (CPCP), Susan Steck, associate professor of epidemiology and CPCP faculty affiliate and James Hebert, distinguished professor of epidemiology and director of CPCP.

The researchers recently published another study examining inflammation among police officers’ diets and the corresponding linkages to risk factors for heart disease and poor metabolic health. Their current project involves translating the aforementioned index into a tool for health professionals and eventually consumers. The interest in applying the researchers’ findings in individual health contexts, as evidenced by the study’s attention in popular press coverage and invited presentations (e.g.,;, suggests that the targeted users of this tool will likely recognize its utility in improving public health outcomes.

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