Fatty Acids and Breast Cancer

By Charlyn Fargo

April 19, 2019 8 min read

There are some cancers where diet can make a big difference — breast cancer is one of them. Researchers at the University of Illinois in Champaign may have pinpointed the reason why.

"Scientists at the University of Illinois have found that free fatty acids in the blood appear to boost proliferation and growth of breast cancer cells," according to a recent press release from the university. Researchers say that "the finding could help explain obese women's elevated risk of developing breast cancer after menopause."

I'm particularly interested in the risks of breast cancer because my mom had it twice — once at age 42 and again at 72. She opted to have a mastectomy both times, with some radical lymph node removal. If a close family member has a history of breast cancer, it can raise your risk of getting it. However, knowing there are dietary changes that I can make — in this case, reducing my triglycerides — is a huge motivator to adjust my eating habits.

That's one of the reasons I was drawn to study nutrition: What we eat can make a big difference in our health. I share this information weekly with a nutrition class for nurses and exercise students at the University of Illinois Springfield. And despite their young ages, they often express concerns about their own risk for cancer.

In the study, Zeynep Madak-Erdogan, U of I food science and human nutrition professor, "obtained blood samples from the Susan G. Komen Tissue Bank and compared those of healthy women with the samples of women who were healthy at the Baltimore study's outset but later developed breast cancer ... Women who developed breast cancer — and women who were overweight or obese — had significantly higher blood concentrations of five free fatty acids and glycerol, which are released as byproducts when fat tissue breaks down triglycerides.

"When taken up by estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer cells, these fatty acids activated pathways that increased tumor cell growth, survival and proliferation," said Madak-Erdogan in the release.

The research findings were published in the journal Cancer Research.

Researchers discovered "that obese women's levels of free fatty acids were significantly higher; however, blood levels of all the fatty acids fell significantly in women who were obese at the outset of the Baltimore study but later lost a significant amount of weight."

How does all this apply to your diet? If you're at a higher risk for breast cancer, this isn't the time to try the higher-fat Keto diet. Eating a lower-fat diet is a smart choice, and losing weight is also a good idea.

Converting grams and calories, fat (9 calories per gram) adds more than twice as many calories as carbs (4 calories per gram) or protein (4 calories per gram). Women eating 1,800 calories daily need between 30 to 60 grams of fat a day; men eating 2,200 calories daily need 37 to 75 grams of fat a day. Limit total fat and saturated fat to lose weight.

Here are some tips to help do both:

Look for food labeled reduced fat or low-fat.

Substitute applesauce for oil in baking.

Use mustard as a sandwich spread.

Flavor food with herbs and spices.

Use cooking sprays instead of oil.

Select "loin" or "round" cuts of meat instead of "rib."

Remove chicken skin and select white meat.

Bake, grill, roast, stew or broil foods instead of frying.

Trim off all visible fat prior to cooking.

Choose leaner ground meats — 93/7 instead of 80/20 lean-to-fat ratios.

Q and A

Q: "Nutritional websites and Nutrition Facts labels all seem to list different amounts of potassium in 1 cup of frozen spinach. How can this be?"

A: "The nutrient content of plant foods varies depending on where it was grown, soil conditions, weather and other factors," says scientist Kyla Shea in a Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter. "For example, higher amounts of iron in the soil in which spinach is grown has been associated with lower amounts of potassium in the leaves. Food processing also impacts nutrient content.

"According to the USDA Food Composition Database, there are 574 milligrams (mg) of potassium in one cup of 'frozen spinach, chopped or leaf, boiled, drained' with or without salt, and 840 mg in a cup of 'spinach, cooked, boiled, drained.' However, the exact amount in the spinach you buy may be lower or higher, depending on where it was grown and how it was processed."

Information courtesy of Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter and the Illinois News Bureau.


Almonds pack a powerful punch with 3.5 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein. Here's a great entree that incorporates almonds with lean pork tenderloin. This recipe is from the Almond Board of California.


2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 white onion, sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 (2-pound) pork tenderloin

Salt and pepper

1 1/2 cups tawny port

1/4 cup sliced dried plums

1 sprig fresh rosemary, plus more to garnish

3/4 cup roughly chopped or slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 400 F. Heat olive oil in a large skillet; add onion and garlic and saute on medium heat until onion is translucent and browning. Transfer onion and garlic from pan to a baking dish. Season tenderloin with salt and pepper; add to pan and sear on medium-high heat for 4 to 5 minutes, until well-browned. Turn and cook about 10 minutes more, browning all sides. Transfer tenderloin to baking dish, setting on top of onions and garlic. Add port and plums to hot pan; simmer on medium heat, allowing port to reduce by half. Remove leaves from 1 sprig rosemary and mince; sprinkle into port mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour port mixture over tenderloin, tucking plums down under it. Sprinkle tenderloin with almonds and a bit more salt and pepper. Roast 40 to 50 minutes, until pork is cooked throughout and no longer pink. Let rest 10 minutes before removing to a cutting board and carving into slices. To serve, place some slices of tenderloin on each plate; top with almonds, plum-onion mixture and port sauce, and garnish with fresh rosemary. Serves 4.

Per serving: 437 calories; 42 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams fat; 118 milligrams cholesterol; 3 grams fiber; 327 milligrams sodium.

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian at Hy-Vee in Springfield, Illinois, and the media representative for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For comments or questions, contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @NutritionRD. To find out more about Charlyn Fargo and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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