Nutrition for breast cancer prevention: Nutrition strategies to help reduce your risk of breast cancer in observance of breast cancer awareness month.
October is a special month that is near and dear to my family. We are so lucky to be able to celebrate my mom and my aunt Melinda as survivors of breast cancer! I know that some are not so fortunate, however. Breast cancer is an extremely prevalent and devastating disease that is important for us to pay attention to. As women, we need to take charge of our health and try to prevent and defeat breast cancer. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, I thought I’d share a few statistics, as well as some tips on nutrition for breast cancer prevention. These are claims backed by scientific evidence, so I’ve included the references.
Breast Cancer Statistics*:
- 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime.
- Men are not immune. An expected 2,350 men will be diagnosed in 2015.
- 40,290 women in the US are expected to die from breast cancer in 2015. This number is far too high. Breast cancer kills more women than any other cancer besides lung cancer.
- In 2015, more than 2.8 million women have a history of breast cancer in the U.S., including women currently being treated and women who have finished treatment.
- A woman’s risk of breast cancer approximately doubles if she has a first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
- While women with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have higher risks of developing breast cancer, about 85% of cases occur in women with no family history.
- The most significant risk factors for developing breast cancer are gender and age (being female and getting older).
Nutrition for Breast Cancer Prevention*:
*From The American Cancer Society and Kuhrer, I. Nutrition in Breast Cancer Prevention. Breast Care, 2006; 1:306-309.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity can increase the risk of breast cancer, especially among postmenopausal women, as well as other cancers. The mechanism is not completely understood, but it most likely has to do with hormones including insulin, estradiol (estrogen) and testosterone. The best way to achieve a healthy weight and prevent cancer is with a healthy diet and exercise, both of which are cancer-protective factors.
- Limit alcohol use. While not necessarily true for all cancers, alcohol has been proven to increase the risk for breast cancer in women. The mechanism is thought to be the reduction of folate and increase in circulating estrogen. Alcohol may also increase the ability of carcinogens to enter tissues, influencing development of any cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends abstaining from alcohol or limiting intake to 1 drink per day for women (or two for men).
- Increase fruit and vegetable intake. Besides helping to maintain a healthy weight, consuming a high amount of fruits and vegetables may help prevent breast cancer and other cancers by increasing fiber and providing phytochemicals, which are compounds found in plant foods that provide health benefits (like cancer prevention) beyond basic nutrients. Vegetables in the brassica family (like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts) are especially potent in phenolic compounds and may be among the most protective. Eat at least 2 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables a day for the most benefit.
There are also a number of things that research has not clarified. Some of these things are:
- Red Meat and Processed Meat: Consumption of high amounts of fatty red meat and highly processed meat is linked to cancer in general, but most of all colorectal cancer. There is not currently a specific link to breast cancer. In my opinion, limiting highly processed meats is a good idea, but lean red meat is fine in moderation.
- Soy: Evidence is conflicting. Isoflavones found in soy possess cancer-preventing properties. But they also have estrogen-like properties that have been questioned on whether they increase the risk of cancer. Researchers are unsure. I recommend including whole-food and minimally processed sources of soy (if you’re into it), like soy beans, tofu, and soy milk, while limiting soy-based additives in highly processed foods.
- Omega-3s: A higher ratio of omega-3 fatty acids (found in canola oil, fatty fish, walnuts, and flax seed) to omega-6 (found in grain-based oils like sunflower and corn oil) is thought to be protective against breast cancer, possibly because omega-6 fatty acids are thought to promote cancer formation, but study results are inconsistent. Increasing intake of omega-3 through food sources such as olive and canola oil, flax, walnuts, and fatty fish (like salmon) is a good idea, if only for heart health at the very least.
- Supplemental antioxidants: Research is inconclusive, but there is a possibility that high doses of antioxidants such as vitamin E and selenium can do more harm than good. Stick to food sources to get your antioxidants.
I hope I have given you a little information to help you arm yourself against cancer, or at least encouraged you to seek out your own information about nutrition for breast cancer prevention! Let’s take charge of our own health by doing our homework, eating and exercising for a healthy lifestyle, and getting regular screenings like mammograms and annual well checks! If breast cancer has affected you or somebody you know, please consider donating to The Breast Cancer Research Fund to help find a cure!