This news release from Harvard describes a study published in Pediatrics that found an inverse association between a high fiber diet during adolescence and a lower risk of developing breast cancer later on. Those consuming the most fiber were about 20% less likely to develop breast cancer in middle age, according to the release. The data analyzed was drawn from a long-term epidemiological study of factors that affect women’s health (the Nurses’ Health Study II). The release doesn’t note that the findings show a relationship, but not a cause. This study doesn’t provide proof that fiber caused the reduction in cancer risk, and there’s still uncertainty as to if and how fiber might “fight cancer.” Like the CBS and NPR news stories also reviewed by HealthNewsReview.org, the release does not tell us if the lowered risk refers to absolute or relative risk. Maybe those omissions in subsequent news coverage started here, with the news release.
The way that studies are framed in news releases matters because it affects resulting news coverage from journalists. In our reviews of CBS and NPR stories on this study, we found that the coverage had many of the same problems that we identified in this release, namely:
Better news coverage of health studies starts with better, more complete news releases that communicate study results accurately and with appropriate descriptive language.
It seems so simple. Add more fiber to your diet to improve health. But one thing many health groups forget to consider when making recommendations for changing one’s diet is the inconsistency in the cost and availability of healthful foods. We’ll rate the release Not Applicable here because most people have a general idea what high-fiber foods will cost. But we wish the release had provided at least a ballpark figure on what the weekly, monthly or annual cost would be to adding more fruit and vegetables to one’s diet. In addition, it needs to be acknowledged more often that there is a large segment of the U.S. population that does not have ready access to grocery stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables.
We recognize that it would be challenging for anyone writing a news release about this study to report on the absolute risks seen in the study. The study does not report absolute risks, although it is possible to calculate them based on the data provided in the tables. One could look at the number of cases in each quintile of dietary fiber (found in Table 2) and divide that by the number of people in each quintile (which is found in Table 1). There are several steps involved, but for the example of early adulthood dietary fiber and breast cancer risk in this cohort, you could do the following calculation:
– 613 cases in quintile 1 / 18,364 women in quintile 1 = 3.3% later developed breast cancer (pre or post menopause)
.– 567 cases in quintile 5/ 18,167 women in quintile 5 = 3.1% later developed breast cancer (pre or post menopause).
– The difference is 0.2 percentage point, which is quite a small absolute risk reduction.
When absolute risk numbers aren’t reported in a study, we think press officers should ask the researchers to provide these numbers so that they can be disseminated to the public. The issue of absolute risk reduction is key to helping readers understand the impact of changing dietary behaviors. We think it’s important enough to rate any news release Not Satisfactory when these numbers aren’t provided.
No harms are mentioned but we wouldn’t expect any in a release touting the benefits of a high fiber diet.
The study relies on data collected from women who had to recall details about their food intake from when they were in high school. In addition, they were surveyed on their diets every four years. Many people may have a hard time recalling what they had the previous day, let alone what their diet was like years ago. Participants may also try to appease the surveyors with answers they think they want to hear. There’s a great potential for “recall bias” in these types of questionnaire-based studies.
The news release doesn’t mention this or other important study limitations. Nor does it touch upon the fact that this was an observational study incapable of proving cause and effect. So the headline for the release — “Higher dietary fiber intake in young women may reduce breast cancer risk” — is not accurate since it implies that fiber may have caused the observed reduction in risk. It would have been better for the release to state that fiber intake was “associated with” reduced risk.
The release doesn’t disease monger about breast cancer.
The National Institutes of Health and The Breast Cancer Research Foundation are named as funders. An existing financial arrangement between a lead researcher and the Japan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association is also disclosed in the release. It’s not at all clear how this trade group was involved with the study or how its interests dovetail with a fiber-rich diet.
The release doesn’t discuss other risk factors for breast cancer at all, much less other lifestyle choices that can reduce risk, such as maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, limiting alcohol consumption or getting enough sleep. Perspective is needed about ways we can stay healthy overall and reduce later cancer risk.
We’ll give this a Not Applicable since it’s commonly assumed that fresh dietary fiber is widely available in various products at many grocery stores. We discussed problems with this assumption under the “costs” criteria.
The news release suggests that this is the first analysis of how adolescent diet affects future risk for developing breast cancer. It states that previous studies on dietary fiber and breast cancer have not looked at diet during adolescence or early adulthood. “This work on the role of nutrition in early life and breast cancer incidence suggests one of the very few potentially modifiable risk factors for premenopausal breast cancer,” according to lead author Maryam Farvid.
While the headline and some of the quotes from researchers suggest there’s a cause-effect relationship between high fiber and breast cancer, we’ve already commented on that. They may have alluded to a breakthrough, but did not explicitly say it. We’ll give them a pass.