When Harvard researchers concluded in 1992 that a high-fat diet doesn't increase breast cancer risk, many accepted the findings unquestionably. Dr. Marc Lippman, director of the Vincent Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University, quickly reported: "If your goal is to do something really substantial about breast cancer risk, you're wasting your time with fat reduction."
But Dr. Robert Kradjian, then the chief of general surgery at Seton Medical Center in Daly City, Calif., remained skeptical. Curious, Kradjian did what medical researchers rarely do--he analyzed the final, published study. His decision: "It was a lousy study that reached an erroneous conclusion."
Kradjian, in his book Save Yourself From Breast Cancer (Berkeley Books), claims researchers made a crucial mistake: Women classified as having "low-fat" diets consumed an average of 27 percent of their daily calories from fat. "That's 'low fat' by America's fat-bloated standards," he says. But he cites a collection of studies that suggests women aren't protected from breast cancer until fat drops below 20 percent. American and Western European women, for example, report five to six times the breast cancer rate of Asian and African women, whose diets are comparatively low in fat.
So how did Harvard researchers bungle such a high-profile study? He suggests that many doctors don't believe it's possible for Americans to reduce dietary fat to 20 percent of their total daily calories. How hard is it? Generally, Kradjian says, it means eliminating butter and margarine in favor of small amounts of olive oil, reducing dairy products, and severely limiting meat consumption. "I know many doctors who say Americans 'won't' or 'can't' do it," Kradjian says. But the benefits include reducing the risk of heart disease and helping control body weight. "And you know what? It's not a major sacrifice."