The Impact of Food Deserts and Swamps on Breast Cancer Risk

Food swamps and food deserts are both environmental factors that can significantly impact dietary habits and, subsequently, health outcomes including obesity. Breast cancer is one of thirteen obesity-related cancers which account for 40% of all cancers in the United States.  What are food swamps and food deserts and how can they affect breast cancer risk and mortality rates?

Food Swamps are areas with an overwhelming abundance of unhealthy food options, such as fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that sell processed foods and high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks. This makes it challenging for people to find and access nutritious foods, contributing to poor dietary choices and potentially leading to obesity and certain cancers. Therefore, living in a food swamp can indirectly increase the risk of developing breast cancer, especially among postmenopausal women who may already be at higher risk due to age.

Breast cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. The postmenopausal breast cancer was twice as high in U.S. counties with high “food swamp” scores which correlate to the highest level of access to junk and fast food. Previous research by Bevel et al. showed that communities with easy access to fast food were 77% more likely to have high rates of obesity-related cancer mortality.

Food Deserts are areas where there’s limited access to affordable and nutritious foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. In these areas, grocery stores and farmer’s markets that offer healthy options may be scarce, and residents may have to travel long distances to find them. As a result, people living in food deserts often rely on convenience stores or fast-food outlets for their meals.  Limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables can contribute to a diet deficient in essential nutrients and antioxidants, which are important for maintaining overall health and reducing the risk of breast cancer. The research presented at San Antonio’s Breast Cancer Symposium in December 2023, showed that the age-adjusted postmenopausal Breast Cancer mortality rate was 53% higher in U.S. counties with high “food desert” scores, relating to those communities with the least access to healthy, nutritious foods.

The impact of food swamps and deserts on breast cancer risk is multifaceted and influenced by numerous factors such as socioeconomic status, cultural norms, and individual dietary choices. Addressing these disparities requires a comprehensive approach that includes improving access to healthy foods, promoting nutrition education and awareness, and implementing policies to encourage healthier food environments in underserved communities. By addressing these issues, it is possible to reduce breast cancer risk and improve health outcomes for individuals living in food swamps and deserts.

This article was written with the generous assistance of Medical Advisory Council member Regina Rinaldi, Registered Dietician.


1. Living in a Food Swamp Tied to High Breast Cancer Mortality – Medscape – December 11, 2023.

2. Bevel MS, Tsai M, Parham A, Andrzejak SE, Jones S, Moore JX. Association of Food Deserts and Food Swamps With Obesity-Related Cancer Mortality in the US. JAMA Oncol. 2023;9(7):909–916. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2023.0634

3. Malcolm Bevel, Meng-Han Tsai, April Parham, Sydney Andrzejak, Samantha Jones, Justin X Moore; Abstract A075: The Association between Food Deserts, Food Swamps, and Postmenopausal Breast Cancer Mortality in the United States. Cancer Res 1 February 2024; 84 (3_Supplement_1): A075.