High intake of processed foods such as pizza, burgers and meat sandwiches has been shown to increase the risk for cancer in a NYU study. REUTERS

Cancer risk has been linked to the quality of carbohydrates consumed. Processed foods, sugary beverages and unhealthy energy-dense carbohydrates increase risk for cancer while healthy carbs like legumes, non-starchy vegetables, fruits and vegetables protect against cancer. A NYU study based on health records of over 3000 volunteers tracked across four decades has revealed the strong association of foods and cancer.

Regular consumption of sugary beverages was associated with a 3 times greater risk of prostate cancer and a doubling of the risk with higher intake of processed foods such as pizza, burgers and meat sandwiches. But, consuming healthy carbohydrate-containing foods like legumes, non-starchy vegetables, fruits and whole grains was associated with a 67 percent lower risk for breast cancer.

Legumes such as beans, lentils and peas were associated with 32 percent lower risk of all obesity-related cancers including breast, prostate and colorectal cancers.

Breast cancer risk was also reduced among women who had a higher level of carbohydrate intake overall as a proportion of their total calories, but significantly also had higher intakes of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes. In short, the type of carbohydrates matters more than the total amount of carbohydrates.

After considering the multiple cancer risk factors, the study found that eating foods with a higher glycemic load was associated with an 88 percent higher prostate cancer risk. The glycemic load is a measure of both the quantity and quality of carbohydrates in a given food item. "Our study showed very strong associations between certain foods and cancer, in particular with prostate cancer," said Nour Makarem, a Ph.D. student at New York University and the study's lead author. "There had not been very many studies on food sources and prostate cancer previously."

The risk increase was most for people who regularly consumed processed lunch foods or soft drinks as also to fruit juices, which often contain added sugars.

"Sugar-sweetened beverages have been shown to increase the risk of obesity and diabetes, and our study documents that they may also have a detrimental impact on cancer risk," said Makarem, who will present the research at the American Society for Nutrition Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting during Experimental Biology 2016.

The study does not point to the foods as the causes of cancer but it is line with previous studies that have shown that malignant cancer cells seem to feed on sugar. Diets high in refined carbohydrates cause obesity and can lead to dysregulation of insulin and glucose, thus upping the cancer risk.

As the volunteers involved in the study were 99 percent Caucasian, there is need to study if the findings hold true in more ethnically-diverse groups.

Healthy carbs include whole grains, fruits and vegetables are full of fiber and get absorbed slowly into our systems, avoiding spikes in blood sugar levels. For tips on how to choose your carbs, check here.