Animal foods linked with reduced risk of breast cancer, while starch found to be associated with enhanced risk

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Most of us will be all too aware of the long-standing and regularly-rammed home recommendations to eat less fat. Fat, and animal fat in particular, is often said to be at the root of many of our ills including obesity and heart disease. However often and forcibly this notion is repeated, the fact remains that fat is not inherently fattening [1], and neither does it have strong links with heart disease. And even if it did, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that when people eat less fat, including saturated fat found in animal foods, it does not bring benefits in terms of weight or heart health [2].

Another condition that animal fat is often implicated in is cancer. There is a general perception that saturated fat can boost cancer risk. Because saturated fat is essentially found in animals foods such as meat and eggs, these foods have also been similarly tarnished. As far as cancer prevention goes, I reckon many individuals would believe that a diet low in animal foods is the way to go.

Bearing this in mind, I was interested to read a study recently published in the International Journal of Cancer [3] in which the relationship between diet and breast and ovarian cancer was analysed.

The researchers analysed the diets of women who had been diagnosed with either breast or ovarian cancer. The researchers identified four common dietary patterns in these women:

1. An ‘animal product’ group, whose diet was rich in meat and saturated fat

2. A ‘vitamins and fibre’ group, whose diet was rich in fibre and nutrients such as vitamin C and beta-carotene

3. An ‘unsaturated fat’ group, whose diet contained high amounts of vegetable and fish oils, as well as vitamin E

4. A ‘starch-rich’ group, whose diet was high in starch

This analysis revealed the following results:

Women eating a high ‘animal product’ diet were found to be at a 26 per cent reduced risk of breast cancer (there was no significant relationship between a high animal product diet and ovarian cancer).

Women in the high starch group were found to be at a 34 per cent and 85 per cent increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer respectively.

I feel duty bound to point out that ‘epidemiological’ studies of this kind cannot prove ‘causality’. In this case, what this means, is that eating lots of saturated fat doesn’t necessarily protect against breast cancer, and eating a lot of starch doesn’t necessarily enhance breast and ovarian cancer risk. However, these results are at least consistent with these notions.

And it’s worth bearing in mind, I think, the fact that there is other research which has yielded similar results. For instance, a study published late last year found that fat intake, including saturated fat intake, had no significant relationship to breast cancer [4]. And evidence published earlier this year has linked higher insulin levels with an increased risk of breast cancer [5]. Other work from last year linked the intake of high glycaemic index and load (GI and GL) foods with an increased risk of cancer.

This latter study was particularly interesting, I think, in that it led its lead author to warn women off eating fat. This, despite the fact that the primary driver of insulin is carbohydrate, including starch (not fat). I reckon this is an example of just how entrenched the low-fat paradigm can be.

This latest study is yet another piece of research which supports the notion that animal foods, even those rich in saturated fat, are not the dietary spectres they are so often made out to be. In addition, and I do think this is very important, it again supports the notion that the oh-so-health starchy carbs we are generally encouraged to have are fill of may have serious negative consequences for our health.


1. Big fat lies – why do health professionals continue to dish out advice about fat that is not supported by science?

2. More ‘healthy’ eating advice from the UK Government that is unlikely to do any good at all

3. Edefonti V, et al. Nutrient dietary patterns and the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. International Journal of Cancer. 2008;122(3):609-613

4. Research suggests overall fat intake has little or no bearing on breast cancer risk

5. Women with breast cancer advised to lower insulin levels – but how?

6. High glycaemic index and glycaemic load foods associated with increased risk of breast cancer

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