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Linking High-fat Diet and Obesity to Increased Cancer Risk

High Fat Foods - NCI Visuals

Many studies over several years have linked excess weight with an increase in a number of cancers, including colon cancer. Aside from not smoking, reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important lifestyle changes you can make today to reduce your risk of cancer.


Researchers from many institutions have tried to focus in on the most important diet components that will help you achieve both a healthy weight and lowered cancer risk. In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables and decreasing intake of red meat, ensuring your diet is overall low in fat is key to your health.

New research from the Whitehead Institute and MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research finds that a high fat diet can cause changes in the intestinal lining that makes the cells more likely to become cancerous.

Omer Yilmaz, an MIT assistant professor of biology and gastrointestinal pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, notes that intestinal stem cells proliferate in the face of consuming a high fat diet. These cells, which last a lifetime, actually can change and mutate into cells that can form tumors in this biological environment.

The researchers studied the effect of a high fat diet on healthy mice. These animals were given a diet made up of 60 percent fat for nine to 12 months. During this time, the mice gained 30-50% more body mass than those fed a “normal” diet. Not only did they gain weight – which in and of itself puts one at risk for a variety of health concerns – but they also developed more intestinal tumors.

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The “Average American” typically eats about 20-40% of their diet as fat, which is lower than the amount fed to the mice in this particular study. However, with the rise of higher fat diets to promote weight loss, such as the Paleo diet and the Ketogenic diet, it does cause concern that long-term use of these diets may have unwanted effects outside of just moving numbers on the scale.

Thankfully, you can have your “cake” and eat it too. One of the best diets for preventing colon cancer can actually go a long way toward helping you reach and maintain your ideal weight.

  • Eat less processed foods. Remember that choosing “low fat” packaged snack foods over regular packaged foods does not necessarily make for a healthy food choice, nor are they always lower in calories. Eat more whole foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Choose lean meats, nuts and seeds, and lower fat dairy foods as well.
  • Speaking of fresh fruits and vegetables, increasing the amount that you eat each day not only can decrease your calorie intake, but they also contribute to improving the amount of antioxidants you consume.
  • Fiber – fiber is widely known for colon health, but it can also help you lose weight by making you feel full, so that you eat less junk.
  • Include good sources of calcium and vitamin D in your diet, which may protect you from colon cancer. In addition, some studies have linked a vitamin D deficiency to obesity. Choose milk, cheese, yogurt, salmon, sardines and dark-green leafy vegetables for your calcium and salmon, sardines, and egg yolk for vitamin D.
  • Get outside (when you can) to exercise. Just 20 minutes in the sun can boost your vitamin D absorption as well as burn off excess calories.

Journal Reference:
Semir Beyaz, Ömer H. Yilmaz et al. High-fat diet enhances stemness and tumorigenicity of intestinal progenitors. Nature, 2016; 531 (7592): 53 DOI: 10.1038/nature17173

Additional Resources
American Institute for Cancer Research: The Weight-Cancer Link

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The surest way to prevent bowel/colorectal cancer (if you're quick) is to remove pre-cancerous "polyps" during screening. You can be back at work next day.