Do Dairy Products Increase Risk For Breast Cancer?

Photo courtesy of Roxanne Ready

Mainstream health news about dairy is conflicting. Between scary data about recombinant bovine growth hormones (rBGH), estrogen, fat and antibiotics on one end and on the other end the health benefits of vitamin D, calcium, minerals, and protein, it’s hard to know if dairy is considered healthy these days.

And what about breast cancer? Is it a risk factor for breast cancer or does it decrease our risk? Is it something we should avoid if we are already high risk or something we should incorporate into our diet?

Do Milk Products Increase Risk For Breast Cancer?

Good news! The short answer is a resounding no. Dairy’s relationship with breast cancer has been studied extensively over the last 25 years, and while the details of the studies don’t always agree, major studies agree on the basics: that dairy is not associated with an increased risk for breast cancer.

A 2002 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology entitled “Meat and Dairy Food consumption and Breast Cancer: a Pooled Analysis of Cohort Studies” “found no significant associations between intake of meat or dairy products and risk of breast cancer.”

A study published the same year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute agreed, stating, “We found no association between intake of dairy products and breast cancer in postmenopausal women.”

In 2013, a review published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition concluded, “Evidence from more than 40 case-control studies and 12 cohort studies does not support an association between dairy product consumption and the risk of breast cancer.”

Does Fat Content of Dairy Matter?

But before we pull out the celebratory Häagen Dazs, what about fat? Dietary fat is something we talk about often in our breast health programs. Saturated fat, specifically has been shown to have a mild association to an increased risk of breast cancer. And high fat diets are linked to higher rates of obesity, which is a substantial risk factor for breast cancer in it’s own right.

Although dairy consumption in general does not increase risk for breast cancer, a 2002 and 2013 study both demonstrate that fat content does make a difference.

A study entitled “Intake of Dairy Products, Calcium, and Vitamin D and Risk of Breast Cancerpublished in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2002 found, “Among premenopausal women, high intake of lowfat dairy foods, especially skim/low-fat milk, was associated with reduced risk of breast cancer.”

And more recently, in 2013, a study also published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute concluded that, “Intake of high-fat dairy, but not low-fat dairy, was related to a higher risk of mortality after breast cancer diagnosis.”

While the conclusions are not the same, the studies agree that, when all things are considered, low-fat dairy is a safer bet for both pre-menopausal women and those already diagnosed with cancer.

What About the Other Stuff in Dairy Products?

As of 2017 there are a lot of conflicting studies on the different components of dairy, including recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), calcium, estrogen, antibiotics, Vitamin D, and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Various studies show increased risk, decreased risk, or no change to risk at all for many of these ingredients. What’s more, making things even more difficult to study, the amounts of these components in individual foods vary or may be absent altogether. Organic dairy products, for instance, do not allow the use of rBGH or antibiotics.

So What Should We Be Doing?

While it’s easy to be concerned about conflicting studies, it’s best to focus on what we already know about how to decrease our risk of breast cancer.

  • We know that breast cancer risks DO NOT increase with dairy consumption.
  • We know that eating a low-fat diet, both in the case of dairy and food in general, helps reduce our risk of breast cancer.
  • We know that obesity increases risk of breast cancer.

Our take? Feel free to eat dairy when you want, but choose low-fat when possible. And no matter what you eat, make sure you stay at a healthy weight. For some great healthy options, check out our Nutrition Switch List and our yummy collection of cancer-fighting recipes.