The Low-Fat Diet and Breast Cancer Mystery

Beth Brophy Health Guide
  • Biopsy is Better. After an abnormal mammogram, a biopsy is the most effective way to identify breast cancer, better than four non-invasive tests—an MRI, ultrasound, PET scan and scintimammogram, says a report based on a review of 81 studies, done by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and quality. The researchers found that for every 1,000 women who had MRIs following abnormal mammograms and did not have breast cancer, 38 would have undetected cancers. (To find out more about biopsies, read our guide to diagnosis.)

    Low-fat diet and breast cancer conundrum. When two major, recent studies reached opposite conclusions about the link between dietary fat and cancer risk, most of us were left confused about how to apply this news to our own lives and diets. In her health column today in the New York Times, Jane Brody tells readers she’s not abandoning her efforts to maintain a low-fat diet: “Women with waistlines at or above 35 inches risk serious health problems, like heart disease and diabetes. Also, abdominal fat is hormonally active and can increase breast cancer risk.”
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    The Washington Post also tackles this issue, with a major explainer about the two studies. The article offers a helpful chart comparing the two studies and a sidebar on why it’s hard to study the role of diet in cancer—among other reasons, it’s hard to measure and change diet, and to isolate which dietary change is going to matter. The bottom line of this very long article written by three faculty members and researchers at Dartmouth Medical School: That low-fat diets probably do lower the risk of breast cancer, but the effect is small. (Read more about lowering your risk in our guide to prevention.)

    The bottom line for me, and maybe for many of us, is that these studies are not saying it’s fine to quit the gym and eat burgers and fries because it really doesn’t matter. Which is too bad, because sometimes I think that’s the reason I keep reading about all these studies.

    What was your reaction to the news that low-fat diets may not substantially lower breast cancer risk in older women? Tell us in the message boards.
Published On: March 14, 2006