Do high-fat diets lead to cancer? Not necessarily. However, whether your diet is higher or lower in fat, it’s your overall eating choices that matter to reduce your risk of cancer.
Early research on diet and cancer risk have suggested that there may be a link to fat consumption, since countries with low fat intake (for example, Japan) had lower rates of cancer than countries (like the U.S.) with higher-fat diets.
So what does today’s best science tell us about dietary fat in the big picture of healthy eating choices to help prevent cancer? Limit fat from red meats, especially processed meats.
High-fat diets can mean diets that are high in fatty, processed meats. Eating too much red meat (beef, pork and lamb) and processed meat increases risk of colorectal cancer. This risk seems related to other compounds in those meats, not the fat.
In addition to reducing colorectal and stomach cancer risk, limiting red and processed meats is recommended for heart health. You should be more concerned about eating plant foods. Center your meals and snacks around vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, which offer a wide range of nutrients, protective phytochemicals and dietary fiber.
Fat is the most concentrated source of calories, and if most of what you eat has a high fat content, it’s easy for relatively small portions to add up to excess calories. If those extra calories lead to weight gain, that is a very real concern for cancer risk, given that overweight and obesity can cause several types of cancers.
Dietary fats come in many forms. Don’t be scared of fat as you don’t need to stay away from plant foods like nuts and avocados that are naturally high in fat. While they are concentrated in calories, portions that are appropriate to your overall calorie needs will not affect your weight loss goals. It will also provide valuable nutrients while making healthy eating delicious.
Furthermore, some research studies have found that low-fat diets are no better than other calorie-cutting diets for weight loss or avoiding weight gain. It’s consuming calories beyond what your body needs that leads to weight gain, irrespective of the source of the extra calories, be it high-sugar sweets and drinks, or excess portions. By enjoying hunger-satisfying eating patterns that include abundant vegetables, modest amounts of oil, your total daily calories will be within the expected range. On the other hand, chips, cookies and ice cream (whether low-fat or high-fat) should be seen “special occasion” foods in true Mediterranean-style eating.
From a health perspective, all fat is not the same. Even within categories of saturated and unsaturated fats, specific fatty acids (the building blocks of fat) may differ in how they promote health or bring potentially negative effects on insulin function, inflammation, heart health and cancer risk.
Removing fear of fat does not mean giving a green light to all high-fat foods. Your focus should be on the overall quality of foods you eat to promote health and reduce cancer risk.