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More Reason to Choose Healthier Fats

Healthnotes Newswire (July 23, 2009)—People who eat a diet high in animal fat have been linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, according to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute—but it is not clear whether this is due to the fatty diet or other lifestyle behaviors associated with eating fat from animal sources.

Pancreatic cancer is not as common as other types of cancer (such as breast or colon), but it is a deadly type, so researchers are highly interested in prevention strategies. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include being over age 55, male, African American, obese, and a smoker. Prior studies have suggested a link between pancreatic cancer and fat in the diet but other studies have been inconclusive.

The case for vegetable-based fats

This study looking at the association between fat intake and pancreatic cancer included 525,473 men and women, 50 to 71 years old, participating in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. Participants in the study filled out a food frequency questionnaire in 1995–96 that included questions about total fat intake and food sources of fat. After 6.3 years of follow-up:

• Men and women who ate the most fat (40% of total calories) from animal foods had a 53% and 23% higher incidence of pancreatic cancer, respectively, compared with men and women who ate the least amount of fat (21% of calories or less).

• This was true for total fat, saturated fat, and monounsaturated fat derived from animal food sources.

• Increased saturated fat consumption had the greatest association with an increased risk for pancreatic cancer.

“In conclusion, we observed positive associations between pancreatic cancer and intakes of total, saturated, and monounsaturated fat overall, particularly from red meat and dairy food sources,” said Anne C. M. Thiebaut and her colleagues from the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. “We did not observe any consistent association with polyunsaturated, saturated, or monounsaturated fat from plant food sources. Altogether, these results suggest a role for animal fat in pancreatic carcinogenesis.”

An editorial in the same journal comments that this was a well-performed study but warns about making definitive conclusions about the association between animal fat or meat and pancreatic cancer, stating that other lifestyle behaviors associated with eating meat may contribute to these findings. They also add, however, that there are well-known health benefits from limiting meat and saturated fat intake and this study supports those recommendations.

Eat a balanced diet for better health

Eating too much fat can increase a person’s risk for obesity, heart disease, heart attacks, and cancer, so eat a balanced diet to prevent disease and optimize health:

Limit portion size. The American Cancer Society recommends controlling meal portion size and avoiding super-size portions that can increase the amount of fat and calories a person eats. Order smaller sizes of foods when eating at fast food restaurants and look for healthy low-fat meal options at restaurants.

Avoid excess fat and added sugar. Avoid eating too much saturated fat and added sugar and drinking too much alcohol all of which can significantly add to calories and lead to increased weight (another risk factor for some types of cancers).

Eat more fruits and vegetables. An abundance of fruits and vegetables and whole grains in the diet is good for your health. The American Cancer Society recommends five or more servings a day to help prevent cancer.

Get plenty of exercise. In addition to limiting fat and calories in your diet it is important to exercise regularly. The American Cancer Society recommends 30 to 60 minutes of daily exercise for adults to help prevent disease and optimize health.

(J Natl Cancer Inst 2009;101:1001–11)

Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, Web sites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.

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