Diet and Pancreatic Cancer

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The fourth leading cancer killer in the United States is pancreatic cancer. More than 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year and more than 95% will die from it within 5 years. The death rate from pancreatic cancer fell during World War II as the amount of meat and other rich foods became less available. After the war, people gradually returned to richer diets and the incidence of pancreatic cancer rose again. The incidence of pancreatic cancer has been increasing dramatically in countries like Japan as they adopt a Western-style diet with more meat and fat. Tobacco smoke also appears to modestly increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

A recent study that followed men for 16.7 years found that those who had higher levels of insulin, blood glucose, and insulin resistance at the start of the study were more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.1 Both men and women with type 2 diabetes are known to have about twice the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Another study that followed 190,045 people for 7 years found that those who ate the most processed meats as well as those who consumed the most beef, pork and lamb had a 50-68% increased risk for pancreatic cancer.2

Other research has shown that people who eat more fruits and vegetables are at reduced risk of pancreatic cancer.3 Lycopene found in tomatoes and other red plants, and foods high in folate, all appear to cut the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Bottom Line: Since pancreatic cancer is nearly always fatal, people need to focus on prevention. A rich Western diet, weight gain and the development of insulin resistance and tobacco smoke appear to be the main controllable risk factors for reducing the risk of pancreatic cancer. Exercise, weight loss and a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans with a little or no processed meats and red meats appears best for those interested in avoiding perhaps the most deadly of all the cancers.


By James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN.


1. JAMA 2005:294;2872

2. J Natl Cancer Inst 2005;97:1458

3. Internat J Cancer 2005;114:817

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