Possible Link Between High Fat Diets and Cancer

When it comes to diseases, cancer is the second leading cause of death (behind heart disease) in the United States—and the risk of cancer increases significantly as you age (thus potentially decreasing your lifespan). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this is partly due to something called DNA methylation—which NIH researcher Jack Taylor describes as “dust settling on an unused switch, which then prevents the cell from turning on certain genes […so that] it might be easier for it to become a cancer cell”. DNA methylation is a naturally occurring process, but being exposed to carcinogens, such as through smoking cigarettes, may alter DNA methylation and increase the risk of cancer.

As it turns out, dietary choices may also have an effect on cancer risk. Historically, researchers who study disease patterns have observed a link between the rise in obesity and cancer, but the reasons for this link have never been fully understood. However, a recent study published in Nature suggests there may be a strong link between colon cancer and a high-fat diet. Using a mouse model, MIT researcher Dr. Ömer Yilmaz and his team found that mice fed a prolonged high-fat diet had an increase in intestinal cell replication, which in turn led to more tumors (some of which were cancerous). So, in the case it wasn’t methylation that was the problem, but rather an increase in the number of cells essentially dividing “out of control”. Although these are just mouse models, and therefore are not perfect representations of humans, the research by Yilmaz and his team provides clues to possible reasons that the incidence of cancer increases with obesity.

Aside from the increase in cancer risk, most people know that eating a high-fat diet is not the healthiest thing for your body. High fat diets are linked to obesity , which in turn is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and a myriad of other diseases. Despite all this, recent Gallup polls show worrying trends. In 2013, only two thirds of Americans ate healthy “yesterday”, and only slightly more than half ate five or more servings of fruits and veggies in at least four of their last seven days. Another poll from 2015 showed that less than half of Americans are actively avoiding fat in their diets. It’s obvious that trends like this might explain increasing obesity rates, but this new research also suggests that these trends could increase cancer rates in the future. It’s a scary thought, and all the more reason to eat better. For more on that, check back soon for our upcoming page on “scientifically proven anti-aging foods”.

Marcel Davidse

Marcel Davidse was an intern with the Healthy Aging Project in the fall of 2016, and graduated in December 2016 from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.