Unhealthful Diet Puts Women
at Risk for Colon Cancer

Tufts University, March 28, 2003

Many studies have linked specific foods to higher risk for certain diseases. But a new study links an entire dietary pattern with an increased risk for colon cancer in women. The researchers call it a "Western" diet and it's one that many Americans eat - high in red meat, processed meats, refined grains, and sugars, and low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The results are published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Studying dietary patterns

Researchers examined dietary information from the Nurses' Health Study collected over a 12-year period from 76,402 women. The women were between the ages of 38 and 63 and were free from cancer at the study's start. The researchers analyzed the women's dietary information and associated their diets with their risk for subsequent colon cancer.

The researchers identified two major dietary patterns: one they termed "Prudent," which was high in fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains; the other they termed "Western," which was high in red and processed meats, French fries, refined grains, and added sugars.

Western diet associated with higher risk of colon cancer

During 12 years of follow-up, 445 women developed colon cancer. This was more likely to occur in women whose diets were the most "Western." The women who followed the Prudent diet, on the other hand, were somewhat less likely than other participants to develop colon cancer. (However, this trend did not reach statistical significance, meaning that the researchers can't say for certain that following a Prudent diet lowered the women's risk of colon cancer.)

These results are similar to findings from other studies and are further evidence that eating an unhealthful diet can raise disease risk. Exactly how it does that, however, is not entirely known. Because the effects of an entire dietary pattern on health can be complex, it is not known for certain how the Western diet may affect colon cancer risk. The authors suggest it may have something to do with the diet's action on insulin levels, but this theory is still being studied.

There's good reason to eat a healthful diet

In the meantime, however, these results underscore what major health authorities have been recommending for some time - consume a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean sources of protein, and limit intake of processed meats such as cold cuts and high-fat foods such as French fries, chips, cookies, and pastries.


Major dietary patterns and the risk of colorectal cancer in women. T. Fung, FB. Hu, C. Fuchs, et al., Arch Int Med, 2003, vol. 163, pp. 309--314

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