By Chelsea Hertel, Registered Dietitian, Oncology Nutrition Specialist, Nuvance Health
Focus on Breast Health is a series of tips to inform and empower you to be proactive about all aspects of breast care.
It is no secret that an active lifestyle and proper nutrition can promote good health and reduce the risk of developing numerous diseases, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Here is what you need to know about nutrition and breast cancer risk:
What foods are included in a healthy diet?
Research shows there are many health benefits of a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These benefits include reducing the risk of developing cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity; and, boosting energy, the immune system and mood.
Strive to eat a colorful diet that includes a variety of:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Lean protein such as chicken, fish and turkey; and low-fat dairy such as cheese and yogurt
- Legumes, such as beans and lentils
- Nuts and seeds
- Unsaturated fats, such as avocado, fish, nuts and nut butters, and olive oil
- Whole grains such as brown rice, bulgur, quinoa and whole-wheat bread
We also recommend consuming foods high in fiber. Many fruits, vegetables and legumes are high in fiber to name a few food groups. Research shows that a high fiber diet can decrease cancer risk for several reasons, including:
- Fiber is the portion of grains that is not fully digested so it pulls stool and other waste with it, including extra cholesterol and estrogen.
- Foods high in fiber usually make us feel full, which can help with portion control and weight management. Research shows that being overweight or obese may increase risk of breast cancer.
How can I include more healthy foods in my diet?
Everyone has individual tastes and situations that may influence what types of foods they have access to and what they like to eat.
Generally, we recommend choosing whole foods a majority of the time rather than packaged foods. Packaged foods tend to be highly processed and have many ingredients, including excess sodium, saturated and trans fats, and refined sugar.
Examples of highly processed foods are packaged baked goods, candy and microwavable meals to name a few. These types of foods also tend to have a lot of ingredients and ingredients you may not recognize.
If the food is packaged, read the nutrition label and look for fewer and healthy ingredients you recognize. Also look for healthy ingredients to be listed first because ingredients are listed in order of their prominence in the recipe.
It is important to remember that moderation is key. And, the diet you follow should be based on your lifestyle and preferences because then you will be more likely to stick to it.
For example, if you love cookies, you do not need to deprive yourself of them. Instead, consider changing the portion. Have one cookie instead of two. Consider meal planning if your schedule makes it challenging to prepare fresh foods daily. For example, make meals in larger batches and then store them for future meals.
How are nutrition, exercise and weight related to breast cancer risk?
Following a plant-based diet and getting regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight, which may then help reduce your risk of breast cancer and other diseases.
Cancer and obesity are both inflammatory conditions, and inflammation adds stress to the body. As body weight increases, so does the risk for breast cancer.
People who are overweight or obese have more fat cells. Estrogen is stored in fat cells. More available estrogen can potentially feed hormone-driven breast cancer.
Obesity increases an individual’s risk of insulin resistance. This results in increased levels of blood insulin and blood glucose or sugar levels. This hormonal disturbance may result in increased risk of breast cancer development.
However, it is important to remember that everyone has an individual risk for cancer. Nutrition, exercise and weight are just a few factors that may influence cancer risk.
Genetics and lifestyle choices, such as smoking, also play a role in cancer development. You cannot change your genetic makeup or family history; but you can avoid smoking and drinking alcohol, and modify what you eat and how much you exercise.
Related article: Who is at risk for breast cancer?
How much exercise do I need?
We follow American Cancer Society and American Institute for Cancer Research guidelines for exercise. Generally, we recommend for adults to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. We also recommend strength training during the week. An example of moderate-intensity exercise is walking 30-minutes a day, five days per week.
Speak with your doctor or registered dietitian if you have questions about exercise, especially if you are starting to exercise for the first time. If you are new to exercise, it is important to increase frequency, duration and intensity while a professional monitors your tolerance to the activity.
Does alcohol increase breast cancer risk?
Research shows a link between alcohol and certain types of cancer including breast cancer. Alcohol can increase estrogen levels in the body, which can influence risk for estrogen-driven breast cancer.
If you do not drink alcohol, we recommend not starting. If you drink alcohol, we recommend following the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines for drinking alcohol in moderation, which is two drinks or less in a day for men, and one drink or less in a day for women.
The bottom line: It is never too late to make lifestyle changes that can make a positive impact on your health. When it comes to reducing breast cancer risk, managing nutrition, exercise and weight may help. Although there are some aspects of breast cancer risk you cannot control, do your best to control what you can.