According to the National Cancer Institute, one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. (The risk increases exponentially after the age of 40, eventually doubling by the age of 70.) As with other types of cancer, smoking, being overweight, and regularly drinking alcohol can significantly increase your risk of breast cancer. But research has shown that your diet plays an important role, as well. Now, a new study whose findings were recently presented at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in New Orleans has shed light on a previously unknown factor in breast cancer development: when you eat plays an important role, too.
In fact, it’s so important that the new evidence suggests that it could prove to be more important than what you eat.
For the study, researchers at the University of California in San Diego studied the effects of “time-restricted eating”—otherwise known as confining your food in-take to a certain window of the day when you’re at your most active, but not reducing calories on the whole—on mice who were either obese or had been “injected with breast cancer cells.”
After a series of tests, the researchers ultimately found that, compared to mice who followed a regularly scheduled low-fat diet, the mice who followed time-restricted eating—regardless of the fat content contained in the food—showed dramatic signs of “delaying the development of tumors and reducing tumor growth.”
The question is: why?
“The results suggest the anti-tumor effect of time-restricted eating is at least partially due to lowering levels of insulin,” explained Manasi Das, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California in San Diego and the lead author of the study.
As scientists know all too well, high insulin levels are common in obese people and it’s been linked to cancer over the course of several studies. For instance, according to one landmark Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study of 93,000 women during the 1990s, women with higher levels of insulin displayed more than double the risk of breast cancer than women with lower levels of insulin.
Other studies have shown that time-restricted eating, as well as intermittent fasting—or not eating for certain extended periods of time—is effective at keep your insulin levels down. “Between meals, as long as we don’t snack, our insulin levels will go down and our fat cells can then release their stored sugar, to be used as energy,” Monique Tello, M.D., wrote on the Harvard Medical School blog. “We lose weight if we let our insulin levels go down. The entire idea of [intermittent fasting] is to allow the insulin levels to go down far enough and for long enough that we burn off our fat.”
Meanwhile, UC San Diego’s Das says that time-restricted eating shows promise in not only staving off cancer but also in promoting weight less—because it’s much easier to do than your average calorie-slashing diet.
“Time-restricted eating may be more successful than calorie restriction in controlling the negative effects of obesity, due to the hunger and irritability that makes it more difficult to stick with long-term calorie restriction,” wrote Das.
Now, before you start setting reminders to eat at certain hours, it’s important to remember that the study is limited in the fact that it was conducted on mice and not human subjects. But the results are nonetheless eye-opening. And for more on breast cancer prevention, check out the 40 Ways to Prevent Breast Cancer After 40.
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