Does Milk Increase Ovarian Cancer Risk?

Nutrition Diva puts the risk of ovarian cancer in perspective.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Q. I love my morning non-fat latte. But the articles I've read lately claiming that drinking milk increases your risk of ovarian cancer are terrifying me. From what I can gather, the risk is less if I drink only one serving a day, and if it's non-fat. What do you think?

A. Ovarian cancer is a disease we all want very much to avoid, but it's important to put risks in perspective. A woman's lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is less than 2%. By comparison, her risk of dying of heart disease is 33%. Paradoxically, most women I know lose no sleep over their risk of heart disease--even though it is far more likely. They're more worried about the 1 in 50 chance of getting ovarian cancer than they are about the 1 in 3 odds of heart disease. It's not entirely rational. But our fears often aren't.

It also doesn't make sense to focus on risk factors that have a small (or debatable) impact while ignoring more potent risk factors like being overweight. I'm not saying you're overweight--I don't know one way or the other. I'm just saying that in addition to focusing our efforts on preventing the things that are most likely, we should also start with the things that will make the biggest difference.

Here's a cool tool that allows you to analyze your personal risk of different types of cancer and other diseases--and how various lifestyle changes affect those risks: Estimate your risk.

You'll see that milk consumption isn't even mentioned as a risk factor for ovarian cancer, because the evidence is simply not solid enough. (Here's a summary of the evidence on milk and ovarian cancer.)

You're correct that in studies that found a link between milk consumption and ovarian cancer, those who drank less milk and chose low-fat had the least increase in risk. Then again, other studies have found the drinking low-fat milk actually reduced the risk of ovarian cancer. In other words, the research is very inconsistent. Based on the current evidence, I don't think I would limit my milk intake unless I had other risk factors for ovarian cancer--ones I couldn't do anything about, such as a personal history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer in the immediate family. And even then, it would be out of an excess of caution rather than solid evidence.

I hope that helps put your dilemma in perspective. Let me know what you decide to do.

See also: Is Milk Bad For You? What's the Best Non-Dairy Milk?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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