One of our Cancer Prevention Recommendations is to limit ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars, as this helps control calorie intake and maintain a healthy weight.

There is strong evidence that diets containing greater amounts of ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars, and consuming a 'Western type' diet (characterised by a high amount of free sugars, meat and fat), are causes of weight gain, overweight and obesity by increasing the risk of excess energy intake relative to expenditure. Greater body fatness is a cause of many cancers.

Processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars embody a cluster of characteristics that encourage excess energy consumption, for example, by being highly palatable, high in energy, affordable, easy to access and convenient to store

There is also strong evidence that glycaemic load (the increase in blood glucose and insulin after eating food) is a cause of endometrial cancer.

‘Fast foods’ are readily available convenience foods that tend to be energy dense and are often consumed frequently and in large portions.

Most of the evidence on ‘fast foods’ is from studies of foods such as burgers, fried chicken pieces, chips (French fries) and high-calorie drinks (containing sugars, such as cola, or fat, such as shakes).

Most foods undergo some form of processing before consumption. More highly processed foods have generally undergone industrial processing and are often higher in energy and lower in micronutrients.

These foods include:

  • potato products such as chips and crisps
  • products made from white flour such as bread, pasta and pizza
  • cakes, pastries, biscuits and cookies
  • confectionery

Overweight and obesity are at the highest levels ever seen globally. Increases are particularly evident in middle-income countries where ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods are increasingly available, as physical activity levels are declining. This is a feature of the ‘nutrition transition’ that accompanies economic development.

Dietary goal

  • Limit consumption of processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars – including ‘fast foods’; many pre-prepared dishes, snacks, bakery foods and desserts; and confectionery (candy)

This Recommendation does not imply that all foods high in fat need to be avoided. Some, such as certain oils of plant origin, nuts and seeds, are important sources of nutrients. Their consumption has not been linked with weight gain, and by their nature they tend to be consumed in smaller portions.

Louise Meincke, World Cancer Research Fund International“The increasing availability, affordability and acceptability of ‘fast foods’ is contributing to rising rates of obesity worldwide. That’s why change needs to happen at both a policy and an individual level.”
– Louise Meincke, World Cancer Research Fund International’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs. See our NOURISHING framework for more information on combating obesity

Policy and public health implications

The increasing availability, affordability and acceptability of ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars is contributing to rising rates of overweight and obesity worldwide. A whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach is necessary to create environments for people and communities that are conducive to limiting consumption of ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars and to consume healthy diets consistent with the Cancer Prevention Recommendations.

A comprehensive package of policies is needed to limit the availability, affordability and acceptability of ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods, including policies that restrict marketing of such foods, especially to children. Policies are needed that influence the food environment, the food system and behaviour change communication across the life course. These policies can also help contribute to a sustainable ecological environment. Policymakers are encouraged to frame specific goals and actions according to their national context. Find out more on policy action for cancer prevention.

Our Recommendations work together as an overall way of living healthily to prevent cancer. Download the full chapter PDF below