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Nutrition and Breast Cancer

by Jessica Iannotta, MS, RD, CSO, CDN

Wellness image

Women facing a new diagnosis of breast cancer, as well as breast cancer survivors, often seek to make healthy changes in order to help prevent recurrence. Other women who have a family history of breast cancer may also seek to maintain a healthy preventative diet and lifestyle. Healthy diet, healthy body weight, and regular exercise all work together to help reduce breast cancer risk.

Healthy Body Weight
Studies suggest that weight gain during adulthood can increase risk of breast cancer, especially before or after menopause. It is known that women with a higher BMI, or body mass index, can have a higher risk of breast cancer recurrence. A healthy BMI is considered less than 25.

Physical Activity
Regular physical activity can help reduce risk of breast cancer by maintaining healthy levels of hormones, such as estrogen and insulin. The American Cancer Society recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity five or more days of the week.

Healthy Diet
Many studies have linked the benefits of a plant-based diet to reduced breast cancer risk. Recent research suggests that women who consume a Mediterranean diet rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables, fish, and unsaturated fats have a lower risk of breast cancer. It is also important to choose more healthy fats from fish, nuts, and plant oils.

Research suggests that alcohol consumption may be linked to breast cancer risk. It is important to talk with your healthcare team about how you should appropriately limit your alcohol consumption. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting alcohol to one serving or less per day (one serving equals 12 oz. beer, 1-1.5 oz. hard liquor, or 5 oz. wine) for cancer prevention. If alcohol is consumed, you should also add folate-rich foods such as beans, whole grains, and leafy greens.

Recent research suggests that women who consume a Mediterranean diet rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables, fish, and unsaturated fats have a lower risk of breast cancer.

Author of Article photo

Jessica Iannotta

The Soy Debate
Soy has received much attention related to breast cancer. Soy contains phytochemicals called phytoestrogens, which have similar chemical structures to human estrogen, yet there is controversy as to whether or not they have similar effects in the body. In relation to breast cancer risk, research suggests that initiating soy consumption during childhood and adolescence may be beneficial. However, research of soy consumption in adulthood has revealed mixed results, likely because there are many complex factors that can affect phytoestrogen action in the body, such as metabolism, menopausal status, and age.

Be sure to speak to your healthcare team regarding soy intake. Women with a history of hormone-related cancers should limit processed soy foods, soy supplements, vegetarian soy-based meat alternatives, soy chips, and soy-fortified cereals. Processed soy does not contain a proper balance of nutrients, and often contains preservatives, colorings, and excessive sodium. Natural whole soy foods like tofu, soybeans, and soy milk are a more healthful choice.

How can you translate this information into a practical application for your daily meals? Check out this handy healthful shopping list:

Buy fresh or frozen blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries.

Citrus fruits
Buy lemons, oranges, and tangerines. Grapefruit may interfere with certain medications.

Buy any color you like. Apples have a healthy fiber called pectin.

Cruciferous vegetables
Buy broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, or kale.

Brightly colored vegetables with yellow, orange, or red colors
Peppers, carrots, squash, and leafy green vegetables are rich in carotenoids.

Sardines, mackerel, wild salmon, and tuna are high in omega-3s.

Buy lentils, dried beans, and peas. Canned legumes are an acceptable alternative; rinse well.

Examples include Brazil nuts, walnuts, and almonds. Make sure to buy the nuts that are not roasted or salted.

Whole grains
Buy grain products that are ideally 100-percent whole grain or list a whole grain ingredient first.

Select a low fat or non-fat yogurt with a variety of active cultures.

Olive oil or Canola oil
These oils are good sources of healthy unsaturated fats. Extra virgin oils have a lighter flavor but have the same fat content.

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Jessica Iannotta is an oncology nutritionist at the North Shore – Long Island Jewish Health System’s Monter Cancer Center in Lake Success, NY.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2011.