Breast cancer

Updated 02 February 2016

Fibre intake early in life can lower breast cancer risk

There are many reasons to fill your diet with fibre-rich foods. Past studies have shown that fibre may help lower the risks of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

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Girls who start eating fruits, beans whole grains and vegetables early in life may reduce the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer later in life.

First strong evidence

A study, published online in the journal Paediatrics, does not prove that fibre, itself, helps prevent breast cancer.

But researchers said it offers some of the first strong evidence that fibre consumption is linked to breast cancer risk, and it hints that the teen years could be particularly important.

Fiber-rich foods include vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains.

Most past studies have failed to uncover a correlation between fibre and breast cancer risk. But in just the past year, a few have suggested there may be some connection after all, according to Dr Kathleen Harnden, co-author of an editorial published with the study.

Read: Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

"These new findings add to evidence that fibre may be protective for some women, and that fibre intake at a certain time in life may be important," said Harnden, a haematology-oncology fellow at Duke University Medical Centre in Durham, North Carolina.

According to Harnden, it "makes sense biologically" that fibre intake during the teen years might matter. "That's the time in life when the breasts are developing," she said. "It's also when body composition is developing."

Diets in high school

Body composition is important, she noted, because obesity has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer after menopause.

The new findings are based on more than 44,000 U.S. female nurses who were mostly in their 30s and 40s at the outset of the study. The women were surveyed about their diets going back to high school and other lifestyle habits.

Over the next 20 years, slightly more than 1,000 women developed breast cancer.

Overall, the study found, women who had eaten more fibre as young adults had a lower breast cancer risk. Those who'd been in the top 20 percent for fibre intake as young adults were 19 percent less likely to develop the disease than women in the bottom 20 percent.

Read: Know the warning signs of breast cancer

Women with the highest fibre intake as teenagers also showed a reduced risk 16 percent lower than women who'd eaten the least fibre as teens.

Those women did not consume huge amounts of fibre, either. On average, they were close to the recommended amount of fibre for women – 25 grams a day.

It's difficult to conclude that fibre, itself, lowered women's risk, Harnden said. The researchers accounted for a number of other factors including overall diet, body weight and smoking but it's still hard to attribute a benefit to one component of a person's lifestyle, Harnden said.

Latest findings

Lead researcher Maryam Farvid, a visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, agreed. That's in part because high-fibre foods contain many other nutrients, she said.

Still, Farvid added, there are many reasons to fill your diet with fibre-rich foods. Past studies have shown that fibre may help lower the risks of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, she said.

Harnden made the same point. "There are so many health benefits to a high-fibre diet, it's a good change to make," she said. "Everyone can benefit."

And the latest findings, Harnden added, underscore the importance of fibre in children's diets. "Your tastes for different foods, and your ideas of what a good diet is, start early in life," she said.

She suggested giving your kids a wide variety of "colourful" whole foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables.

The same advice goes for adults. "Eat real food, not too much of it, and make it largely plant-based," Harnden said.

Read more:

Eating fibre cuts breast cancer risk

Plant lignans protect the breasts

New breast cancer guidelines: Delay screenings

Image: Fibre supply from iStock

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Breast cancer expert

Dr Gudgeon qualified in Birmingham, England, in 1968. She has more than 40 years experience in oncology, and in 1994 she founded her practice, Cape Breast Care, where she treats benign and malignant breast cancers. Dr Boeddinghaus obtained her qualification at UCT Medical School in 1994 and her MRCP in London in 1998. She has worked extensively in the field of oncology and has a special interest in the hormonal management of breast cancer. She now works with Dr Gudgeon at Cape Breast Care. Read more.

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