Food choices may lower risk for ovarian cancer


The bad news, according to the first large-scale study of diet and ovarian cancer, is that the more saturated fat a woman eats, the more she raises her risk of developing ovarian cancer. The good news is that if she eats enough vegetables every day, she appears to completely reverse that risk.

Such are the findings reported by researchers who looked at the eating habits of some 1,000 women--half of whom had developed ovarian cancer, half of whom hadn't. Specifically, they found that for every 10 grams of saturated fat--the kind of fat found in meat and poultry as well as in butter and other full-fat dairy products along with cakes and cookies--a woman increases her risk of falling victim to ovarian cancer by an average of 20 percent. It comes to about the amount of saturated fat in a hamburger, says head researcher Harvey Risch, MD, of the Yale University School of Medicine.

But just a couple of daily half-cup servings of vegetables and legumes, such as kidney or navy beans, decrease her risk by the same amount. And reducing saturated fat consumption by 10 grams lowers her risk 20 percent more.

The findings are by no means insignificant since ovarian cancer, with its particularly grim survival rate (it's the leading cause of death from problems in the female reproductive system), strikes one out of every 50 American women.

The researchers have put forth several theories as to why eating certain foods can potentially raise or lower the risk for developing ovarian cancer. A couple of them revolve around the body's manufacture of the hormone estrogen, which may be associated with the disease. (But none of the theories has anything to do with estrogen a woman takes, say, in birth control pills or as estrogen replacement therapy after menopause. The body deals with those forms of estrogen differently.)

One supposition is that animal foods, which contribute saturated fat, may somehow increase the production and circulation of estrogen. The theory is indirectly supported by research indicating that vegetarian women have lower levels of estrogen circulating in the body than non-vegetarian women, a difference that is directly related to the difference in their consumption of saturated fat.

A second possibility is that perhaps certain harmless estrogen-like substances found in vegetables are mistaken by the body for "real" estrogen and thereby stand in for the actual hormone in various chemical reactions that could otherwise pave the way for the cancer. These plant-based estrogen stand-ins are called phytoestrogens.

Whatever the possible mechanism, investigators note that the results need to be confirmed by further observations, because they did not in any way demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between particular foods and the incidence of ovarian cancer but, rather, an association that may serve only as a marker for something else that is going on.

Still, the study adds to evidence that has already started to suggest a connection between saturated fat, vegetables, and ovarian cancer. In Milan, for instance, women who ate four or more servings of meat a week tended to be more likely to fall victim to ovarian cancer than those who ate meat less often. Eating green vegetables and carrots, however, seemed to lower their risk. The same trend between increased animal fat consumption and increased incidence of ovarian cancer was found in women both in the Boston area and in Shanghai.

People in the U.S. are estimated to eat about 25 to 30 grams of saturated fat a day, whereas someone following say, an 1800-to-2000-calorie diet should average no more than about 20 grams. Among the most concentrated sources of saturated fat: ground beef; whole milk and whole milk beverages; cheese; beef steaks and roasts; hot dogs and luncheon meats; doughnuts, cookies, and cakes; butter; and ice cream and other frozen desserts. The chart gives the number of grams of saturated fat in many of these as well as other foods.

Grams of
sat fat

1/2 cup vanilla ice cream (Haagen Dazs) 11
1 tablespoon butter 8
3 oz cooked hamburger meat (80% lean) 7
1 beef hot dog (2 oz) 7
3 oz beef tenderloin, trimmed to 1/4" fat 6
1/2 cup vanilla ice cream (Breyer's) 6
1 oz Swiss, cheddar, American, or
Parmesan cheese 5-6
1 cup whole milk 5
1 slice Entenmann's cream-filled
chocolate cake 5
1 Dunkin' Donuts donut (plain cake) 4
1 oz beef bologna 3
1 oz potato chips 3
small McDonald's fries 2
3 oz roasted chicken with skin 11

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