Do high-fat dairy foods raise breast cancer death risk?

Whole milk (Photo credit: David Guo’s Master)

Individuals completing breast cancer treatment often query me about the role of diet in reducing the risk of recurrence (the cancer coming back). Unfortunately, we do not have high level evidence to provide guidance with confidence. Now we have a new study that provides insight into the association of  high-fat dairy foods and risk.

According to a new study of 1,893 breast cancer survivors, those who average as little as one serving of high-fat dairy foods have a 1.5x higher risk of dying from breast cancer (as compared to those who eat little or no high-fat daily).

“Specifically, women consuming one or more servings per day of high-fat dairy had a 64 percent higher risk of dying from any cause and a 49 percent increased risk of dying from their breast cancer during the follow-up period,” said the author Candyce Kroenke, ScD, MPH. The category of high-fat dairy products researchers tracked included cream, whole milk, condensed or evaporated milk, pudding, ice cream, custard, flan, and also cheeses and yogurts that were not low-fat or non-fat. In general, the women studied reported that they consumed low-fat milk and butter most often, and they consumed relatively limited amounts of low-fat dairy desserts, low-fat cheese and high-fat yogurt. Overall, low-fat dairy intake was greater (median 0.8 servings per day) than high-fat dairy (median 0.5 servings per day).

My take: Many previous studies have struggled to definitively find a link between dairy and breast cancer risk. This study is especially helpful in that the authors looked at the type of fat. The study found an association between high-fat dairy and breast cancer mortality, but no association with low-fat dairy products and breast cancer outcomes. This research was part of the Life After Cancer Epidemiology (LACE) study, one of several efforts by investigators with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research to consider the role of lifestyle factors such as nutrition, exercise and social support on long-term breast cancer survival and recurrence.

While hundreds of studies have examined the role of lifestyle factors in cancer risk and prevention, this study is one of a small but growing number that focus on the role of lifestyle factors after a breast cancer diagnosis. Now, when patients ask me what to do to potentially lower their risk, I answer: 1) Be physically active, aiming for 150 minutes per week of the equivalent of a vigorous walk (30 minutes, 5 days/week); 2) Achieve and maintain a body mass index (BMI) of 20-25; 3) Be prudent about alcohol; 4) If you are taking an anti-estrogen drug, be careful not to miss doses. And now, I can add: Watch those high-fat dairy products (but this doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally cheat!). I’m Dr Michael Hunter.

The small print: The material presented herein is informational only, and is not designed to provide specific guidance for an individual. Please check with a valued health care provider with any questions or concerns. And have a great day!  

About the author: I am a Harvard- , Yale- and UPenn-educated radiation oncologist, and I practice in the Seattle, WA (USA) area. I feel genuinely privileged to be able to share with you. If you enjoyed today’s offering, please consider clicking the follow button at the bottom of this page. Thank you.

Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2013

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Harvard AB Yale MD UPenn Radiation Oncology Radiation Oncologist, Seattle area

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