Western diet, early puberty, and breast cancer risk

Breast Cancer Res Treat. 1998 Jun;49(3):187-93. doi: 10.1023/a:1006003110909.


The typical high fat, low fibre diet of the industrialised West, particularly when associated with inadequate exercise, is likely to advance the onset of puberty. This will manifest in girls as an earlier menarche, earlier onset of breast development, and an earlier growth spurt. Both earlier menarche and adult tallness are markers of increased risk to breast cancer. Earlier menarche in the West is usually associated with earlier onset of hyperinsulinaemia, and multiple case-control studies report that hyperinsulinaemia too is a marker of increased breast cancer risk. Although the Western diet is linked both to earlier menarche and also to earlier hyperinsulinaemia, the mechanism involved is not necessarily the same. While menarche is likely to be triggered by a threshold level of fatness, manifestation of insulin resistance is genetically-determined and strongly influenced by the fatty acid profile of the diet. The putative mechanisms by which they influence mammary carcinogenesis also differ. Early menarche is reported to be associated with a raised oestradiol level persisting into early adult life. On the other hand, hyperinsulinaemia is commonly associated with abnormal aromatase activity in the ovaries. In addition, the concomitant increase in bioactive levels of insulin-like growth factor-I may synergise with oestrogen in stimulating proliferative activity in mammary epithelium. Dietary modification and exercise regimens are proposed in families at high risk to breast cancer. The measures have been shown to reduce insulin levels in both children and adults, and serial monitoring of insulin and sex steroid levels could be used to detect a metabolic-endocrine effect.

MeSH terms

  • Birth Weight
  • Body Height
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Diet*
  • Female
  • Human Growth Hormone / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hyperinsulinism / etiology
  • Insulin Resistance
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / physiology
  • Obesity / complications
  • Puberty / physiology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Time Factors


  • Human Growth Hormone
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I