A Healthier Diet May Reduce Your Risk for Pancreatic Cancer

November 8, 2013

by Deborah Gerszberg, RD, CNSC, CDN Clinical Nutritionist, The Pancreas Center Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. More than 44,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and more than 38,000 will die. This poor prognosis largely results from the difficulty in detecting the disease before it progresses to advanced stages, when surgery is no longer possible. It is no wonder that researchers are actively searching for ways to identify who is at risk for pancreatic cancer and how we can minimize risks for the disease. Thus far, research on the effects of diet on the risk for pancreatic cancer has been inconclusive; some studies have shown associations between diet and risk for the disease, while others have not. However until now, few studies have examined the effect of overall dietary habits (rather than specific nutrients or foods) and risk for pancreatic cancer. In August 2013, a large study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found a link between dietary patterns and the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Using data from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study to evaluate diet quality based on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the study compared people who were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer with those who were not. The subjects were AARP members 50–71 years old (n=537,218). Subjects were excluded if they had previous cancers or consumed diets that were too high or too low in total energy (calories). The authors found that people who followed the guidelines most closely (compared with those who followed the guidelines the least) had about an 18 percent reduced risk of developing pancreatic cancer over an average time period of 10.5 years. Even after excluding those who drank alcohol, smoked, and had diabetes, the results were still significant. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are divided into 12 categories; the higher the score (maximum 100), the more closely the guidelines were followed.

The authors concluded that following a high-quality diet may help to reduce one’s risk for developing pancreatic cancer. I believe that following a high-quality diet rich that is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and lean meats, while low in sugar, sodium, and saturated fat is worthwhile for everyone, in addition to its importance in preventing chronic and/or life-threatening diseases such as pancreatic cancer. Still not sure exactly what/how much you should be eating? Here are some key points for you to follow from the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010), with some personal tips to make following them a breeze:

  • Eat more whole grains. Choose whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta. At least half of your grains should be whole.

Tip: If you dislike whole grains, try mixing ½ white pasta or white rice with ½ whole wheat pasta or brown rice. You will not notice as much of a difference this way.

  • Eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables daily. Eat a variety of vegetables, and focus on dark-green, red, and orange vegetables, in addition to legumes, such as beans and peas.

Tip: If you don’t like eating salad, try adding a variety of chopped veggies to your starchy dishes (for example, add broccoli to macaroni and cheese, spinach and cannellini beans to pasta with marinara sauce, or chopped carrots, bell peppers, and peas to your rice)

  • Eat 2 cups of fruits daily (fresh, frozen, or canned—if canned, avoid heavy syrups).

Tip: Choose unflavored yogurt or oatmeal and add fresh or frozen fruit such as banana or berries for a boost of nutrients and sweetness.

  • Eat 3 servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy or fortified soy drinks daily.Tip: Snack on yogurt, cook your oatmeal with fat-free milk, use low-fat cheese instead of meat on your sandwich, or add 1 percent cottage cheese to your pasta (which I’m assuming is at least 50 percent whole grain and packed with veggies).
  • Use vegetable oils (canola, corn, olive, peanut, and soybean) in moderate amounts instead of solid fats (butter and lard).

Tip: Use first cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) when sautéing on medium heat (and let it preheat before adding food). If you overheat it, the oil can release free radicals, which can damage your cells. I even use EVOO in place of butter in baking certain recipes such as banana bread and cannot taste a difference! Next time you bake, try using ½ the butter and substitute a vegetable oil for the remaining fat.

  • Use seafood instead of meat or poultry for some of your meals.

Tip: Fish is one of the easiest dinners to prepare at the last minute. For salmon, spread Dijon mustard and sprinkle with dried rosemary. For cod, line baking pan with a little EVOO and sliced onions, topped with fish. Season fish with coriander, paprika, black pepper, cumin, and turmeric. Then top with chopped tomatoes. Roast at 350F until fish is flaky. Use a thermometer and cook until 145◦F to avoid overcooking.

  • Eat less: added sugar, solid fat, refined grains, and sodium

Tip: Cook more foods at home. Eating out packs in fat, sugar, and sodium. When eating prepared foods, stay away from processed meats, canned soups, and TV dinners, which are often very high in sodium. This article originally appeared on The Columbia University Department of Surgery Blog.