Ovarian cancer and diet

New research on ovarian cancer, one of the five most deadly cancers among women in developed countries, suggests that a balanced plant-based diet may help in its prevention. The National Cancer Institute says this strategy is important since ovarian cancer often produces no clear symptoms until late in its development and is difficult to detect through current tests and screenings.

In four separate recent studies, women who ate more vegetables and fruits slashed their risk of this cancer one-third to two-thirds compared to women who ate the least. Vegetables and fruits contain a variety of protective substances that fight a broad range of cancers. In a new report in the Journal of Nutrition, diets high in fibre were linked with 57% lower risk of ovarian cancer, and those highest in carotenoids faced 67% lower risk.

In Italy, higher consumption of legumes (dried beans and peas) was linked with 33% lower risk. Protective benefits could come from the fibre and natural phyto-estrogens in legumes. In the same study, higher red meat consumption was linked with more than 50% higher ovarian cancer rates.

Dietary fat may have positive or negative influence on risk of ovarian cancer. A recent summary of studies found that eating more animal fat was linked with a 70% increase in risk. Yet not all fat is bad. A new study in the International Journal of Cancer reports 40% lower ovarian cancer in women with diets highest in omega-3 fat (the type found in salmon and certain other fish, flaxseed and walnuts). Olive oil and certain seed-derived oils may also offer some protection, since an Italian study noted women consuming the most faced 32% less ovarian cancer than those who ate the least.

A study of more than 62,000 women showed that body fat may also affect risk. Published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, women with enough excess weight to be classified as obese were almost 70% more likely to develop ovarian cancer than those in a healthy weight range. Results like these can be hard to interpret, since such links could reflect the hormonal changes from high caloric intake or excess body fat, or could be a reflection of diets low in fruits and vegetables.

More research is needed, but for now, the mostly plant-based diet recommended by the American Institute for Cancer Research to lower overall cancer risk 30 to 40% is a good way to help protect against ovarian cancer. But since ovarian cancer can be difficult to detect, talk with your doctor about risk factors and possible ways to help protect yourself.

“Nutrition Notes” is provided as a public service by the American Institute for Cancer Research, 1759 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009