Some Low-carb Diets May Raise Cancer Risk

A diet that is low in carbohydrates and high in animal sources of protein (versus vegetable sources) may increase cancer risk as well as risk of death from all causes, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Low-carbohydrate weight-loss plans have become popular in recent decades. These diets tend to emphasize eating more protein while restricting carbohydrate consumption. Some diets prescribe eating protein from animal sources, and others focus on vegetarian sources of protein and increased vegetable consumption overall.

Some studies have indicated that eating red and processed meats, particularly frequently and in large quantities, may raise the risk of certain cancers. As well, because meat is often high in saturated fats and cholesterol, a meat-based diet could pose other health risks, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Vegetable-based diets, on the other hand, are thought to potentially lower certain health risks, including heart disease and some cancers.

To evaluate the association between low-carbohydrate diets (animal- and vegetable-based), researchers associated with the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals’ Follow-Up Study conducted a study including approximately 130,000 men and women. Participants were free of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes and the beginning of the study and were followed from 1980 (women) or 1986 (men) through 2006. Low-carbohydrate dieters were identified using food frequency questionnaires.

Overall, participants who followed a low-carbohydrate diet had a modest increase in overall mortality. Specifically, animal-based diets were associated with higher all-cause mortality, as well as higher cardiovascular and cancer mortality. Vegetable-based diets, however, were linked with lower all-cause and cardiovascular mortalities.

The researchers concluded that following a diet that is low in carbohydrates and high in animal products may raise overall risk of death, including death from cancer, whereas a low-carbohydrate vegetable-based diet may lower all-cause mortality and cardiovascular mortality. It is recommended that individuals considering any form of weight-loss plan or change in diet first consult their healthcare provider.

Reference: Fung TT, van Dam RM, Hankinson SE, et al. Low-carbohydrate diets and all-cause and cause-specific mortality: two cohort studies. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2010 Sep 7;153(5):289-98.

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