October is breast cancer awareness month. As a dietitian I am frequently asked what measures can be taken to decrease the risk of cancer. The truth is no special food or diet can prevent you from getting breast cancer, or cure your cancer if you have been diagnosed. However, some foods can help reduce risk.
As with most disease there are risk factors that are controllable and others that are not. The non-controllable risk factors associated with breast cancer are: family history, genetics, gender as women are nearly 100 times more likely to develop breast cancer then men, risk increases with age, age of menses, before the age of twelve and menopause after 55 increase the risk of breast cancer.
Lifestyle choices can affect risk of breast cancer both positively and negatively. Here are some changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer along with reducing your risk of recurrence if you are a breast cancer survivor.
- Don’t drink alcohol. Several studies have shown that the risk of breast cancer increases with increased alcohol consumption. Heavy drinking which is three or more drinks per day, raises the relative risk of breast cancer by 40% to 50%. Other studies show an increased relative risk of 15% with just three to six drinks per week. Alcohol adds empty calories and no other nutritional value, so if you drink alcohol, decrease or stop drinking. If you do choose to drink limit to less than one drink per day and make sure your diet includes enough foods rich in folic acid: oranges, orange juice, green vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals or a multivitamin supplement.
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight. A high Body Mass Index (BMI) increases the risk of breast cancer for women after menopause. According to the Susan G. Komen Facts For Life, a weight gain of twenty pounds or more after the age of 18 may increase your risk of breast cancer. Not to worry, if you have gained weight, you can lower your risk with weight loss.
- Get enough physical activity.The benefits of exercise go far beyond looking good in your skinny jeans. Exercise lowers estrogen levels, boosts immunity, lowers insulin levels and yes, can help you lose or maintain your weight. Strive for 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week, a brisk walk or any other activity you enjoy that you will do daily. Try to be more active, move more and sit less! Always check with your health care provider before starting any exercise program.
- Follow a low fat diet that includes more healthy unsaturated fats and less saturated fats. Although the research is not clear on the benefits to a low fat diet and breast cancer risk we know that a lower fat diet can aid in weight loss and maintenance. Following a lower fat diet that incorporates healthy fats like olive oil, avocados and nuts instead of butter, whole fat dairy and high fat animal proteins will also help your heart health. Fats are bite for bite the highest calorie foods we eat so make sure you monitor your portions.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. Again the research here is non-conclusive but if you are trying to lose weight or just eat healthier your diet should be filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. Although there is no strong evidence about organic versus conventional foods and breast cancer you may choose more organic versions to decrease the pesticides in your diet. No matter if you choose organic or conventional make sure you always wash your fruits and vegetables well and watch for cross contamination with raw meats when you prepare your meals and snacks. Strive for five or more servings of fresh vegetables and fruits daily.
- Soy and foods containing soy. When it comes to soy and breast cancer the research is very confusing for most people. Three large scale studies reported no adverse effects of soy food consumption on breast cancer prognosis. The bottom line is whole soy foods as part of a balanced diet are safe and may be beneficial for women with a history of breast cancer. It is a good idea to avoid soy supplements as they have unnaturally high levels of isoflavone concentrations and there is not sufficient evidence to the benefit or harm. Unless otherwise ordered by your health care provider it is fine to include some soy in your diet. If you are unsure, talk to your physician about what is right for you.
- There may be foods that are better at fighting cancer than others. According to the website Eat to Defeat Cancer (eattodefeat.org/food) some of the top cancer fighters are: apples, berries, cruciferous vegetables, sweet potatoes, citrus fruit, cold water fish (salmon, sardines, cod), garlic, legumes, nuts, turmeric, and whole grains. This is only a partial list of the foods they recommend, you can find the entire list and more information on specific foods on their website.
There is no magic diet or magic food that will prevent or cure breast cancer. Eating more whole foods and less processed foods is an easy way to reduce your risk. Eating more fruits, vegetables, plant based proteins and whole grains will give you more energy, help you maintain or lose weight and may prevent some chronic disease.
International Agency for Research on Cancer, Weight Control and Physical Activity. Vol. 6. Lyon, France: Lyon IARC Press; 2002.
Huang Z, Hanikinson SE, Coditz GA, et al. Dual effects of weight and weight gain on breast cancer risk. JAMA. 1997;278:1407-1411.
Facts for Life, Healthy Living. www.komen.org
Dixon, Suzanne. Nutrition and Breast Cancer: Studies show a Nutrient-Dense Diet Plus Daily Exercise Can Lower Risk of Recurrence. Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 14 No 8. August, 2012.
Michels, Karin et al. Diet and Breast Cancer, a Review of the Prospective Observational Studies. Environmental Factors in Breast Cancer, Supplement to Cancer. 2712-2749; May 14, 2007.
American Institute for Cancer Research, 2009.
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