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October 2021

Aust N Z J Surg. 1997 Nov; 67(11): 755-60.

Breast cancer: aetiological factors and associations (a possible protective role of phytoestrogens).

Stephens FO.

Department of Surgery, University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

BACKGROUND: In spite of many known and suspected factors associated with the risk of breast cancer there has until recently been no explanation for its continuing increase in women of Western societies over recent decades or why there has not been an equivalent increase in women of most Asian and other less Westernized societies. It has long been suspected that a significant factor has been an increasing change of diet in Western societies from one predominantly vegetarian to one with a high content of meat and dairy products as well as 'refined' foods. Although diet has long been suspected there has otherwise been no real explanation as to the mechanism of the change in incidence of breast cancer. METHODS: A comprehensive literature review has been made of aetiological factors and associations concerning breast cancer to determine whether any consistent trend can explain the rising incidence in Western societies. RESULTS: There are a number of likely contributory factors but there is now accumulating evidence that the single most important difference is that people having a vegetarian diet have a high intake of legumes and other plant foods containing a variety of lignans and isoflavonoids. These appear to have an important role as nature's sex hormone modulators. These agents appear to be biologically active in a number of ways not yet completely understood but they do have both a weak oestrogenic effect and an anti-oestrogenic competitive effect, thus reducing the potential carcinogenic action of prolonged oestrogen activity. A probable additional benefit of such diets could be the role of dietary fibre. CONCLUSIONS: A major problem of Western diets may not be the presence of meat or dairy products in the diet but the absence of desirable ingredients of vegetarian diets, namely dietary fibre and certain plant lignans and isoflavonoids. A modification of diet to include a greater proportion of fibre and soy or other leguminous plant food should be studied. Alternatively addition of more fibre and lignans and especially isoflavonoids to traditional Western diets would seem worthy of serious investigation. Such influences appear to have their greatest impact early in life and therefore could be especially important for girls and young women in Western societies.

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