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The UK Women’s Cohort was established with the aim to investigate links between diet and health.

It is one of the largest studies of diet and cancer in middle-aged UK women, with members of the cohort being involved in several different projects over the past 20 years.

Data has also been used in many ways to investigate relationships between diet and disease. A few examples include looking at the amount of meat and fibre people eat and breast cancer occurrence; Vitamin C supplements and association with breast cancer; the role of fibre intake in type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

How the information is used

The role of certain foods and nutrients in health
Several studies have been undertaken looking at particular aspects of diet and whether or not that has any bearing on development of disease. Findings have included:

  • Women who eat more fibre have a lower risk of stroke.
  • Women who consume larger amounts of red and processed meat have greater risk of developing breast cancer.
  • How much fat women eat does not seem to be linked to risk of breast cancer.
  • Women taking vitamin and mineral supplements do not have a lower risk of developing breast or bowel cancer.

The role of dietary patterns in health
Specific foods and nutrients are not eaten on their own, but as part of a dietary pattern where foods may interact to contribute combined effect on health. Many dietary patterns have been identified and used in research. Some results include:

  • No strong association between the risk of breast cancer and the consumption of either a Mediterranean-type diet or one characterised by adherence to the World Health Organisation Healthy Diet Index was observed.
  • When considering meat eaters, vegetarians and fish eaters a fish eating dietary pattern (excludes meat) may offer some protection against developing postmenopausal breast cancer.

Improving how we measure what people eat
To investigate the links between diet and health, accurate measurements of diet are required. Several studies have been carried out using the information collected from the UK Women’s Cohort Study to look at the reliability of different dietary assessment methods.

  • Results show that Food Frequency Questionnaires (FFQs) are valid for use in population research, but that food diaries may be superior.

Cohort Collaborations 
Anonymous information collected from the UK Women’s Cohort members has been pooled with data collected from other cohorts around the world to maximise the reliability of research into links between diet and disease. The UKWCS data has contributed to several collaborations, including The UK Dietary Consortium in which information from 6 cohorts was joined to make a new cohort of over 100,000 individuals. Using this boosted dataset, in depth study of the links between several aspects of diet (dietary fats, fibre and alcohol in particular) and risk of developing breast cancer or cancers of the bowel was possible. In 2013, a new collaboration was formed, called InterLACE (International Collaboration for a Life Course Approach to Reproductive Health and Chronic Disease). This consists of 200,000 women from 13 studies of women's health in 7 countries, and aims to study how aspects of reproductive health vary around the world.

Social circumstances, diet and health
The data collected about lifestyle and demographics can also be looked at to try and establish common trends between groups of people and their food choices. For example looking at lifestyle factors which may influence the amount of fruit and vegetables a person eats or differences in characteristics between people who eat a low fat or a high fat diet. This information can then be used to assist with knowing which groups of people to target with particular health advice. We have found, for example, that women who eat more fruit and vegetables tend to be vegetarian or vegan, to take vitamin or mineral supplements (even though they probably don’t need them), are married, don’t smoke, and have been educated to A-level or degree level.

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