Low-Fat Diet Effective in Reducing Pancreatic Cancer Risk Among Overweight Women

Pancreas cancer

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the US with an estimated 43,090 fatalities reported in 2017. AICR research suggests that excess body fat is one of the strongest factors increasing risk for pancreatic cancer and estimates that 19 percent of US pancreatic cancers could be prevented if all individuals were at a healthy weight.

A new multi-year study by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine found that a low-fat diet reduced the risk of pancreatic cancer among a targeted group of postmenopausal, obese women. The study appears in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

“Our analysis revealed that intervening with a low-fat diet was particularly effective in reducing pancreatic cancer risk in overweight and obese postmenopausal women. Those who were in the intervention group had significantly reduced risk of pancreatic cancer compared to the comparison group,” says Dr. Li Jiao, corresponding author of the study, who is an Associate Professor of Medicine-Gastroenterology at Baylor College of Medicine.

The Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification (WHI-DM) trial is a randomized clinical trial that enrolled 48,835 postmenopausal women, aged 50 to 79 years, between 1993 and 1998. At the time of enrollment, all these women were on diets that contained a high proportion of high-fat foods. They were randomly assigned to either the intervention group or the usual diet comparison group. The goal of the intervention group was to reduce fat intake and increase the intake of vegetables, fruits, and grains. This intervention ended in 2005.

“Our analysis revealed that intervening with a low-fat diet was particularly effective in reducing pancreatic cancer risk in overweight and obese postmenopausal women. Those who were in the intervention group had significantly reduced risk of pancreatic cancer compared to the comparison group.”

Using this cohort, the Baylor oncology team identified a subset of 46,200 women for a follow-up study to examine the effect of a low-fat diet on the onset of pancreatic cancer. Their follow up study ended in 2014.

Based on previous observational studies, researchers knew that diet may play a role in the risk for pancreatic cancer in both men and women. However, Dr. Jiao added, “There had been no clinical trial designed to answer the question whether changing diet can modify risk of pancreatic cancer. To address this question specifically in the real world, we analyzed the Women’s Health Initiative-diet modification cohort, given its large size and long follow-up time.”

After 15 years of follow-up, 92 pancreatic cases were identified in the intervention group, and 165 in the comparison group. The incidence of pancreatic cancer was lower in the intervention group than in the comparison group (35 per 100,000 versus 41 per 100,000 people per year).  

Dr. Jiao added, “These results are in line with previous observational studies and dietary guidelines, and the clinical trial provides additional evidence that a low-fat diet may be an effective preventative measure for this disease in women.”

She added that findings from her study may not be generalizable to men. “Furthermore,” she added, “reduced risk was not observed in postmenopausal women with a body mass index lower than 25, suggesting that these women may have metabolic differences that should be explored in the future.” 

The study results align with AICR’s recommendation to limit processed foods high in added fat and sugar for cancer prevention.

In 2012 AICR’s report on Preventing Pancreatic Cancer also concluded that excess body fat increases risk for pancreatic cancer. 

The Baylor research team hopes that these results will motivate at-risk women to eat a healthy, balanced diet as a preventative measure against pancreatic cancer and other inflammatory conditions. AICR's research shows that a diet focused on mostly plant foods like vegetables, whole grains, beans and fruit, helps lower risk for many common cancers.

For more on pancreatic cancer risk factors, symptoms and other information visit:

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    Published on November 29, 2017

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