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Oncologist. 2000;5(5):393-404.

Diet and cancer.

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Departments of Epidemiology and Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.


The large differences in cancer rates among countries, striking changes in these rates among migrating populations, and rapid changes over time within countries indicate that some aspect of lifestyle or environment is largely responsible for the common cancers in Western countries. Dietary fat has been hypothesized to be the key factor because national consumption is correlated with the international differences. However, detailed analyses in large prospective studies have not supported an important role of dietary fat. Instead, positive energy balance, reflected in early age at menarche and weight gain as an adult, is an important determinant of breast and colon cancers, consistent with numerous studies in animals. As a contributor to positive energy balance, and possibly by other mechanisms, physical inactivity has also been shown to be a risk factor for these diseases and in part accounts for the international differences. Although the percentage of calories from fat in the diet does not appear related to risk of colon cancer, greater risks have been seen with higher consumption of red meat, suggesting that factors other than fat per se are important. In many case-control studies, a high consumption of fruits and vegetables has been associated with reduced risks of numerous cancers, but recent prospective studies suggest these associations may have been overstated. Among the factors in fruits and vegetables that have been examined in relation to cancer risk, present data most strongly support a benefit of higher folic acid consumption in reducing risks of colon and breast cancers. These findings have been bolstered by an association between incidence of colon cancer and a polymorphism in the gene for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, an enzyme involved in folic acid metabolism. The benefits of folic acid appear strongest among persons who regularly consume alcohol, which itself is associated with risk of these cancers. Numerous other aspects of diet are hypothesized to influence the risks of cancers in Western countries, but for the moment the evidence is unclear.

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