Cancer: dairy products may increase risk, new study warns

The role diet plays in influencing cancer risk is controversial, although researchers have established that specific elements definitely cause cancer. For example, the World Health Organization has determined that processed meat is a major contributor to colorectal cancer. Now a major new study, published today in the journal BMC Medicinehas linked the consumption of dairy products to an increased risk of certain cancers.

To date, the overall evidence on whether dairy consumption affects cancer risk is inconsistent.

Studies in Western populations indicate that dairy products may be associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer and a higher risk of prostate cancer, but have found no clear link for breast or prostate cancer. other types of cancer.

Today, the first major study looking at dairy consumption and cancer risk in Chinese adults found that increased consumption was associated with higher risks of liver cancer and breast cancer in women .

The study was based on nearly 30,000 cancer diagnoses among half a million Chinese adults.

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However, these results may not be the same for non-Western populations, where the amounts and types of dairy consumption and the ability to metabolize dairy differ significantly.

For example, in China, the consumption of cheese and butter is very low, and the consumption of milk and yogurt is also much lower than that of Western populations.

Additionally, most Chinese adults cannot properly metabolize dairy products due to a lack of lactase, a key enzyme for breaking down lactose from milk sugar.

How did the researchers put together their findings?

Researchers from Oxford Population Health, Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing set out to determine whether dairy products affect cancer risk differently among Chinese people.

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Higher consumption of dairy products, for example, can increase levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I), which promotes cell proliferation and has been linked to higher risks for several types of cancer.

Potentially, the female sex hormones found in cow’s milk (such as estrogen and progesterone) may play a role in the increased risk of breast cancer, while the saturated and trans fatty acids in dairy products may increase the risk of breast cancer. liver cancer. For the majority of Chinese who do not produce enough lactase, dairy products can also be broken down into products that affect cancer risk.

Dr Maria Kakkoura, nutritional epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health and first author of the study, said: “This was the first major study to investigate the link between dairy products and cancer risk in a Chinese population. . Further studies are needed to validate these current findings, establish whether these associations are causal, and investigate potential underlying mechanisms involved. »

Although the average level of consumption of dairy products in China is still much lower than that of European countries, it has increased rapidly over the past decades.

Associate Professor Huaidong Du, Principal Investigator at Oxford Population Health, and one of the study’s co-lead authors, added: “Although our results suggest there may be a direct link between regular consumption of dairy products and certain cancers, it is important to be aware that dairy products are a source of protein, vitamins and minerals. It would not be prudent to reduce the consumption of dairy products based solely on the results of the current study or without ensuring adequate intake of protein, vitamins and minerals from other sources.

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