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Animal fats linked to pancreatic cancer: Study

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 29-Jun-2009

Researchers have linked high intake of fat from red meat and dairy products with increased risk of pancreatic cancer, in a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Pancreatic cancer is fatal in 95 per cent of cases, and smoking and obesity are among the known risk factors, but scientists at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland said that previous studies into the impact of fat intake on pancreatic cancer had proved inconclusive.

The authors used data collected by the National Institutes of Health-AARP Health Study to analyze the diets of 500,000 people who had completed food frequency questionnaires in 1995 and 1996. Participants were then followed for an average of six years to track a number of health issues, including pancreatic cancer. Of those sampled, 1,337 were diagnosed with the cancer – 865 men and 472 women.

The authors wrote: “We observed positive associations between pancreatic cancer and intakes of total, saturated, and monounsaturated fat overall, particularly from red meat and dairy food sources.”

The study adds to a body of research that blames excessive red meat consumption for a number of health problems, including higher rates of heart disease, macular degeneration, various cancers and premature death. On the flip side, diets high in fruit, vegetables and fibre that also limit red meat consumption, such as the Mediterranean diet, have been linked with longer life and lower rates of heart disease.

The researchers found that men with the highest consumption levels of total fat had a 53 per cent higher rate of pancreatic cancer than those with the lowest total fat consumption, and women had a 23 per cent higher relative rate. For saturated fat, participants with the highest consumption levels had a 36 per cent higher rate of the cancer than those who consumed low levels.

They added: “We did not observe any consistent association with polyunsaturated or fat from plant food sources. Altogether, these results suggest a role for animal fat in pancreatic carcinogenesis.”

The reason for this could be connected to the role the pancreas plays in excreting enzymes that digest fat, they suggested. The authors also noted that studies have linked saturated fat consumption with insulin resistance, and that diabetes and insulin resistance are risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

However, an accompanying editorial questioned whether the increased incidence of the cancer could be reliably attributed to higher meat consumption, saying that “other dietary or lifestyle preferences associated with meat consumption” could also have a role. The editorial added that the study was “well-performed and a good addition to the understanding of pancreatic cancer.”

Source: Journal of the National Cancer Institute

2009, 101: 1001-1011.

“Dietary Fatty Acids and Pancreatic Cancer in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study”

Authors: Theibaut et al.

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