Young women approaching puberty could reduce their risk of breast cancer if they avoid high-fat diets, researchers from Michigan State University claim.

The research, published in the current online issue of Breast Cancer Research, suggests that eating a diet high in saturated animal fats not only speeds up the development of breast cancer, but also may increase the risk of developing the disease.

Experimenting on mice, the researchers from the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program at Michigan State University (MSU) found that just 3 weeks after embarking on the high-fat diet, mice showed changes in the breast, including increased cell growth and alterations in the immune cells.

They note that these changes are permanent and may lead to the rapid development of precancerous lesions, and ultimately, breast cancer.

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New research warns that eating a diet high in saturated animal fats during puberty may increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer.

Another worrying factor the researchers unearthed is that this type of diet produced a distinct gene signature in tumors consistent with a small group of cancers known as basal-like or triple negative breast cancers.

According to Susan G. Komen For the Cure, between 15-20% of breast cancers in the US are basal-like, and they more commonly affect younger women.

Unfortunately, they are also particularly aggressive forms of the disease, growing faster and more likely to spread to other parts of the body early. It is not surprising that the prognosis for women with these types may be poorer than for other types.

Sandra Haslam, physiology professor at MSU’s College of Human Medicine, says the result highlights the importance of the research, explaining:

This is very significant because even though the cancers arise from random mutations, the gene signature indicating a basal-like breast cancer shows the overarching and potent influence this type of diet has in the breast.”

And perhaps even more interestingly, the changes to breast tissue occurred regardless of whether or not the mice gained weight.

Richard Schwartz, microbiology professor and co-author of the research, clarifies:

“It’s important to note that since our experimental model did not involve any weight gain from the high-fat diet, these findings are relevant to a much broader segment of the population than just those who are overweight. This shows the culprit is the fat itself rather than weight gain.”

The researchers caution that the early evidence from the study suggests the effects of the high-fat diet in early puberty could be permanent – even if a lower fat diet is followed later in life. They call for further research, stressing that they cannot say with any certainty that people would be affected in the same way.

Schwartz says:

Overall, our current research indicates that avoiding excessive dietary fat of this type may help lower one’s risk of breast cancer down the road. And since there isn’t any evidence suggesting that avoiding this type of diet is harmful, it just makes sense to do it.”

Medical News Today reported earlier this year that 50% of all breast cancer deaths in the US occurred in women younger than 50, highlighting the importance of targeting younger people with better information and access to health care.