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A High-Fat Diet May Increase Risk for Pancreatic Cancer

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, a time when people everywhere come together donning purple ribbons to raise awareness for this often late-diagnosed disease.

The pancreas is a small gland located in the abdomen that plays an important role in the digestion of food. It produces enzymes and hormones that help break down foods in the small intestine, and it also produces insulin to regulate blood sugar levels in the body. According to the American Cancer Society, over 46,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year. Pancreatic cancer is considered to be particularly fatal, as it is often diagnosed at a late stage, after it has spread to other parts of the body.

Though there are a wide range of uncontrollable factors that can contribute to pancreatic cancer, including genetics and age, there are some behavioral changes we can make to reduce risk, including stopping smoking and switching to a diet that is lower in fat and cholesterol.

How Can Diet Affect My Risk for Pancreatic Cancer?

A recent study by the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) suggests that a diet high in fat and calories may lead to precancerous pancreatic lesions, amongst other health issues.

The study compared mice who were fed a normal diet with others who were made purposely obese through a high-fat, high-calorie diet. The latter group gained significantly more weight, and developed a number of health issues including higher insulin levels, metabolic abnormalities, pancreatic inflammation and pre-cancerous pancreatic lesions.

How Should I Change My Diet?

As the study shows, diets high in fat and calories can lead to obesity and metabolic disturbances, and may expedite pancreatic neoplasia. Thankfully, changing your diet can make a positive impact. Study researcher Dr. Guido Eibl, a professor in the surgery department at UCLA, says; “These precancerous lesions take a long time to develop into cancer, so there is enough time for cancer-preventive strategies, such as changing to a lower-fat, lower-calorie diet, to have a positive effect."

When people ask me for dietary recommendations I typically recommend to balance each meal with the proper amount of protein, carbohydrates and vitamins. Here are some tips to help:

  • Consume more plant-based oils, such as olive oil or coconut oil.
  • Try good fats like avocados or
  • Eat your veggies! Aim for 2 ½ to 3 cups per day.
  • Incorporate whole grains like barley or quinoa.
  • Limit added sugars. You can quell your sweet tooth by eating natural sugars from whole dates or raisins.
  • Integrate fish into your diet to supplement your protein intake.
Many of the foods listed above make healthier substitutes for the ingredients that you may use daily. For example:
  • Avocado can replace mayonnaise on a sandwich.
  • Olive oil can replace butter in most recipes.
  • Fish can be a versatile substitute for meats.
The Meat of the Matter

As I’ve said before, a diet high in red meats, animal fats, processed meats and carbohydrates is tied to an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer while a diet high in fruits and vegetables may decrease risk. Similarly, the temperature at which foods are eaten can have an impact on how your body might respond to and digest them. Specifically, meats that are cooked well done, charred, smoked, fried or dehydrated may pose a higher risk than meats that are baked or boiled.

A good rule of thumb is to limit red meat consumption to less than 18 ounces cooked weight of meat per week.

If the thought of removing meat from your meal plan seems daunting, consider the following ways to grill healthier:

  • To reduce carcinogens when grilling, it is important to clean the grill of black debris that may stick to it
  • Remove excess fat from meat
  • Use an acidic marinade, such as lemon juice, vinegar or white wine
  • Partially cook meat by baking and then finish on the grill for a short time to avoid direct exposure to an open flame for a prolonged period of time.
According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is only six percent, so it is important to take action today. Whether you begin slowly by weaving more whole grains or fish into your diet or just change the way you prepare meals, you will be making great strides in your effort to lower your risk for pancreatic cancer.

To learn more and discover new resources about pancreatic cancer, visit the UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health's Pancreas Cancer Center website here.