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Poor Diet During Adolescence/Early Adulthood and Risk for Premenopausal Breast Cancer

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Key Points

  • Women who consumed a diet high in sugar-sweetened and diet soft drinks, refined grains, red and processed meats, and margarine and low in vegetables and coffee during adolescence or young adulthood had a higher risk of premenopausal breast cancer compared with those whose adolescent and early adulthood diet was not associated with promoting chronic inflammation.
  • When women in the study were divided into five groups based on the inflammatory score of their adolescent diet, those in the highest score group had a 35% higher risk of premenopausal breast cancer relative to those in the lowest score group. When the same analysis was done based on their early adulthood diet, those in the highest inflammatory score group had a 41% higher risk of premenopausal breast cancer relative to those in the lowest score group.

Although adolescence is a highly susceptible time for mammary carcinogenesis, few prospective studies have examined the role of adolescent diet and breast cancer risk. Now, a study investigating the association of an adolescent and early adulthood dietary pattern that promotes chronic inflammation and is characterized by a high intake of sugar-sweetened and diet soft drinks, refined grains, red and processed meats, and margarine and a low intake of vegetables and coffee finds the diet may increase the incidence of premenopausal, but not postmenopausal, breast cancer. The study by Harris et al was published in Cancer Research.

Study Methodology

The researchers analyzed data from 45,204 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II using reduced rank regression. The participants completed a food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) in 1998, when they were between the ages of 33 and 52, about their high school diet (Harvard Service [HS]-FFQ).

Their adult diet was assessed first in 1991 (dietary baseline), when participants were between the ages of 27 and 44, and then every 4 years after using an FFQ listing over 130 food items. Each woman’s diet was given an inflammatory score using a method that links diet with inflammatory markers in the blood.

Study Findings

The researchers found that among the women who completed the HS-FFQ, 1,477 cases of breast cancer were diagnosed during 22 years of follow-up. And adolescent and early adulthood dietary pattern characterized by inflammation was associated with an increased incidence of premenopausal, but not postmenopausal, breast cancer. Women in the fifth quintile of the inflammatory pattern score had multivariable adjusted hazard ratios for premenopausal breast cancer of 1.35 for adolescent diet (95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.06–1.73; P = .002) and 1.41 for early adulthood diet (95% CI = 1.11–1.78; P = .006) compared with women in the first quintile.

The corresponding relative risks for postmenopausal breast cancer were 0.84 (95% CI = 0.60–1.17) for adolescent and 0.76 (95% CI = 0.54–1.06) for adult intake.

Avoiding an Inflammatory Dietary Pattern

“Our results suggest that a habitual diet that promotes chronic inflammation when consumed during adolescence or early adulthood may indeed increase the risk of breast cancer in younger women before menopause,” said Karin B. Michels, ScD, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and coauthor of this study, in a statement. “During adolescence and early adulthood when the mammary gland is rapidly developing and is, therefore, particularly susceptible to lifestyle factors, it is important to consume a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grain, nuts, seeds, and legumes and to avoid soda consumption and a high intake of sugar, refined carbohydrates, and red and processed meats.”

Funding for this study was provided by the National Cancer Institute.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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