There are plenty of quotes that connect your diet with your well-being:
- "You are what you eat."
- "Eat well, live well, be well."
- "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."
While some may be exaggerated (eating an apple doesn't negate eating an entire cake afterward), there is some truth behind them. Nutrition is deeply intertwined with your health, and when it comes to breast cancer prevention, it may play a stronger role than you think.
Breast Cancer and Nutritional Habits in the US:
- Around 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime
- Less than 1 in 10 adults and adolescents eat enought fruits and vegetables
- Most adult diets exceed the recommended amount of calories from solid fats and added sugars, refined grains, sodium and saturated fats.
While no diet can completely prevent you from getting breast cancer, the food you eat plays a significant role in keeping your body healthy, boosting your immune system, and helping to keep your risk as low as possible.
Here are 5 nutritional tips to help lower your risk of breast cancer.
1. Maintain a healthy weight.
From taking care of your heart to simply improving your mood, maintaining a healthy weight comes with a wide range of health benefits. Similarly, avoiding being overweight can decrease your risk of developing breast cancer.
"Being overweight is particularly risky for women who have gone through menopause, whose ovaries have stopped making estrogen. After menopause, most estrogen is made from fat tissue instead. Extra fat tissue leads to higher estrogen levels and an increased risk for breast cancer," says Maureen Boccella, MS, RD, CDCES, LDN, Manager of Nutrition and Diabetes Services at Chester County Hospital.
For women who have already had breast cancer, gaining weight can increase the risk of recurrence (cancer coming back).
The best way to lose weight is to focus on clean eating — or avoiding processed foods. That means swapping the chips for veggies and dip or pizza for a nutritious salad. Of course, exercise plays a role, too. Physical activity helps you "burn off" calories by using them for energy.
If you have questions about managing your weight, talk to your healthcare provider for guidance and support.
2. Load up on fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
You may remember being told to eat your veggies when you were young — and that advice was spot on. The American Cancer Society recommends eating a diet mostly consisting of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (like whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, and brown rice) as a way to lower your risk of breast cancer.
Some studies have also shown that breast cancer survivors who eat diets full of fruits, veggies, and whole grains live longer than those who don't.
"Fruits, veggies, and whole grains set your body up to feel its best and provide it with the energy and nutrients it needs. Aim to eat more than 5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, and make at least half of your grains whole grains," adds Maureen.
3. Decrease your fat intake.
In addition to helping you maintain your weight, sticking to a low-fat diet might help protect you from breast cancer. A number of studies have found that breast cancer is less common in countries where people typically eat less total fat, polyunsaturated fat, and saturated fat.
A low-fat diet can also help keep breast cancer from coming back, especially for women who have been diagnosed with estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer (when the cancer cells do not have a protein that estrogen will attach to).
Studies are still helping researchers to identify the exact link between fat intake and breast cancer. However, one thing is certain — a low-fat diet positively contributes to your overall health and well-being, which helps protect you from breast cancer.
4. Limit how much alcohol you drink.
While alcohol isn't a food, it's still something you put in your body — one that can be seriously detrimental to your health. Even just a few drinks a week can increase your risk of getting breast cancer. This includes all kinds of alcohol, from beer to wine to your favorite kind of martini.
Since alcohol can raise estrogen levels in your body, there is a possibility that this could lead to an increased risk of the cancer coming back. There hasn't been any strong evidence from studies to support the theory that alcohol raises the risk of breast cancer recurrence, but it's still best to be cautious. Also we do know that alcohol is a source of empty calories and raises the risk of many other cancers.
Your best bet? Avoid alcohol altogether. However, if you do decide to drink, limit your intake — women should stick to 1 alcoholic beverage per day or less.
5. Be wary of claims linking breast cancer to specific foods.
Some foods have a reputation of being the direct cause of cancer. While it's important to be mindful of what you put into your body, be cautious of believing claims that a specific food is cancer-causing.
For instance, some studies have made the connection between eating soy products and a heightened risk of breast cancer. This may be because compounds in soy — called isoflavones — can act like estrogen in the body, and increased levels of estrogen have been linked to certain kinds of breast cancers.
However, these studies were done on rodents, who process soy differently than people. No studies have shown the same results on humans. In fact, whole soy foods, such as edamame and tofu, may actually lower your risk of breast cancer. Keep in mind — there is a difference between whole soy and synthetic soy (found in protein powders and bars). Make sure to steer clear of those products as much as possible.
Another persistent myth is that sugar promotes cancer growth. Even though cells — including cancer cells — depend on blood sugar (called glucose) for energy, sugar doesn't promote the growth of cancer cells. On the other hand, limiting sugar doesn't make them grow slower. However, a diet high in sugar can lead to weight gain, which can increase your risk of breast cancer.
No Magic — Just Healthy Eating
When it comes to using your diet to prevent cancer, there's no magic formula — and there's no magic food. There is no strong evidence that any specific foods or supplements will reduce your risk of breast cancer.
Using food for breast cancer prevention is actually much more simple. By maintaining a well-balanced diet full of healthy foods, you're providing your body with the nutrients and energy it needs to stay healthy, including protecting you from breast cancer. If you're concerned you're not getting enough of the right nutrients, talk to a registered dietitian, who can help guide you on your path to healthy eating.
Food is the lifeline of your body. As it works hard to protect you against illnesses like breast cancer, provide it with the support to do so through nutritious, delicious food.
Do you have questions about using nutrition to reduce your risk of breast cancer? Call 610-738-2835 for a one-on-one nutrition counseling session with a registered dietitian at Chester County Hospital.
Related Information from Chester County Hospital: