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High fat diets may speed up breast cancer development

Ed Uthman
Creative Commons
We're sorry to spring this one on you after you've just finished feasting

Maybe don't read this story right after plowing through a pecan pie, ok? 

Because a group of scientists are finding that what young women eat during puberty could determine how breast cancer cells develop in their bodies for the rest of their lives.

The culprit: high-fat diets.

It's not just about weight: high fat diets may hurt skinny and heavy women alike 

Michigan researchers say eating lots of fat as a teen can speed up breast cancer cell development, especially for cancers usually associated with young adult women. 

Researchers at Michigan State University’s Breast Cancer and Environment Research say their findings are clear: regardless of what you weigh (and we’ve long known that the estrogen in fat cells can trigger breast cancer), "the most striking effect [of a high-fat diet] is to speed up the development of breast cancer,” according to  MSU microbiologist Richard Schwartz.

“We need to look more carefully at the consequences of high fat, apart from the issues of weight gain."

Give a mouse a lot of  lard, and they'll develop cancer faster 

Here’s how they came up with these findings: Schwartz and his team studied a couple hundred female, puberty-age mice.

They fed one group of lady mice a normal, healthy diet.

And they fed another group 60% lard – pig fat, basically.

Neither group actually gained weight.

And both groups were then exposed to carcinogens like you’d see in our environment.

Mice in both groups developed breast cancer tumors (yes, mice have breasts - they are mammals, after all).

But the lard-eating mice developed those tumors much, much faster than their healthy-eating peers.

“This high-fat diet, even in the absence of weight gain, meant there was this dramatic speeding up of the occurrence of cancer,” says Schwartz.

But why? Well, the heavy-fat diet actually changed mice at the cellular level. They started growing more inflammatory cells in their breasts, while at the same time their immune cells changed.

Aaaand more good news: the changes could be permanent 

Schwartz says it’s possible that those cellular changes are irreversible – so perhaps, even if young adult women eventually change their diet and eat less fat, they may not be able to undo the damage done during puberty.   

This is a pre-clinical trial, and Schwartz says replicating it in human subjects would be challenging: you don’t exactly want to expose women to cancer-causing pollutants like the mice experienced.

The findings were just published online in Breast Cancer Research journal. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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