Breast Cancer is the most common cancer for women, and it is a complex disease with many contributing factors. Even those with a genetic predisposition for cancer can reduce their risk of acquiring the disease, as well as other cancers, through the foods they choose to eat. This is an important point that is often lost in the conversation about cancer.
Your dietary decisions – what you have for breakfast, lunch and dinner - can offer substantial and powerful protection against cancer and other health issues.
Here are six important ways diet influences breast cancer risk.
- Eat lots of green vegetables, mushrooms, and onions. Following a high-nutrient diet rich in greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, nuts and seeds as described in my book Super Immunity, offers more protection against breast cancer than a vegetarian diet. That’s because it is the nutrient density and diversity of the diet that offers the most dramatic protection against cancer, not merely the avoidance of meat or animal fat. Vegetables and fruits have been consistently associated with both reduced risk of breast cancer and improved survival of breast cancer patients. Cruciferous vegetables contain powerful anti-cancer compounds that halt the growth of breast cancer cells and promote excretion of estrogen. Mushrooms block tumor growth and have anti-estrogenic activity. Regular consumption of mushrooms – as little as a few mushrooms per day – has been shown to decrease breast cancer risk by to 60- to 70-percent. Organosulfur compounds in onions and garlic also prevent the development of cancers by detoxifying carcinogens, halting cancer cell growth, and preventing tumors from obtaining a blood supply.
- Use one tablespoon of ground flax or chia seeds daily. Flax and chia seeds are the richest sources of lignans, phytochemicals which also inhibit cell growth in breast tumors by inhibiting the actions of estrogen. In fact, in one notable study of women who had breast cancer and were scheduled to have breast tumors removed, half ate a flax-containing muffin and the other half ate a control muffin daily, for 32-39 days until surgery. Their tumor tissue was analyzed after surgery, and even in this short timeframe, there was significant apoptosis (tumor cell death) in the flaxseed group.
- Reduce your consumption of animal protein. Consuming high levels of animal protein – especially dairy products – raises blood levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Elevated IGF-1 levels have been associated with increased breast cancer risk in many studies. Higher fish consumption in women has also been linked to higher rates of breast cancer. Agricultural and industrial carcinogens, such as dioxins, accumulate in fatty tissues. Humans’ primary mode of exposure to these dangerous chemicals is from meat, poultry, fish, and dairy fat. Limit animal protein to less than eight ounces per week.
- No fried foods or well-done meat. Steaming, making vegetable soups, or using a wok should be the major extent of cooking. High temperature dry cooking produces potentially carcinogenic compounds: acrylamides (formed in starchy foods like French fries) and heterocyclic amines (formed in meats). For example, chicken cooked at high temperatures is known to contain a heterocyclic amine called PhiP, which is a breast carcinogen.
- Eat a vegetable-based, fiber-rich diet. Fiber binds up estrogen in the digestive track, accelerating its removal from the body. Cumulative exposure to estrogen is known to be a risk factor for breast cancer. That is why breastfeeding and having multiple children – with the first birth occurring before age 24 – are both protective against breast cancer, in part because it reduces estrogen exposure. Other ways to limit your exposure to estrogen are by maintaining a healthy weight (fat tissue produces estrogen) and avoiding endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA and phthalates. Be aware that the use of higher-dose estrogen-containing contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy is associated with increased risk. That risk increases with the duration of use.
- Avoid white sugar, white flour, white rice and commercial baked goods. High glycemic carbohydrates have been linked to increase incidence of breast cancer in dozens of scientific studies. When you eat a diet rich in vegetables, beans, intact whole grains, fresh fruits, nuts and seeds, instead of commercial baked goods, you maintain lower levels of insulin. Excessive insulin promotes fat storage, raises estrogen levels and promotes cell replication and cancer.
In addition to diet, there are other ways to lower your risk factor for breast cancer. Don’t smoke or drink alcohol. Exercise at least three hours a week and maintain a healthy weight. And finally, do not use multivitamins and other supplements that contain folic acid, and do not use nutritional yeast fortified with folic acid. Folic acid, which is found in most multivitamins and prenatal vitamins, is associated with increased risk of breast cancer, whereas folate from natural food sources, like green vegetables, is associated with a decreased risk.
Another important note regarding supplements: maintain healthy vitamin D levels and take a DHA+EPA supplement daily. Three-quarters of women who have breast cancer are vitamin D deficient, and maintaining sufficient blood vitamin D levels can significantly decrease risk of breast cancer. Adequate omega-3 fatty acid consumption is associated with reduced cancer incidence. EPA has anti-inflammatory effects and DHA has been found to block tumor angiogenesis and tumor cell growth.
Lifestyle medicine, not drugs, is the secret to winning the war on breast cancer. True breast cancer awareness means every woman knows how to protect themselves by living healthfully. Your breast health is in your hand, the one that holds your fork.