Nutrition to Beat Breast Cancer

Amy Gardner
October 15, 2014

As women, we are constantly bombarded with messages about maintaining a healthy weight.  While it can be difficult to face, we know that carrying around excess weight isn’t good for many reasons.  Increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke are just a few of the health risks that are connected with weight gain as we age.  Achieving and maintaining a weight can help protect you from these diseases but did you know that it may also protect you from breast cancer?

As an oncology dietitian I work with women who either have breast cancer or have a strong family history of the disease. Weight gain in adulthood puts many women at increased risk of hormone-related breast cancer due to higher amounts of estrogen present in their bodies, produced by fat tissue. Women who are overweight or obese have higher levels of estrogen than thinner women because they have more fat tissue to produce the hormone. When you lose weight, you decrease your stores of fat tissue and therefore lower the amounts of estrogen circulating in your body. This can be beneficial for lowering risk of hormone-related cancers.

Studies show that weight gain, particularly after menopause, is the most troublesome for increased risk of hormone-related breast cancer however many women are unaware of this connection. The good news is that you don’t have to feel powerless. Researchers point out that even small weight loss can make a big impact on reductions in risk. You don’t have to lose 40 or 50 pounds to see a benefit. If you are overweight, reducing your body weight by just 10% will lower your risks.

Where to start? When I meet individually with patients, we start first by talking about healthful choices. From a cancer-prevention and weight loss perspective, my first priority is always to work with my clients on increasing their intake of plant-based foods and then we proceed from there. My baseline nutrition recommendations are listed below:

1.  Start with for 5 servings of fruits/veggies daily (at least!). We all can benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables. Period. From a weight-loss point of view, it is important to watch portions of starchy vegetables like potato, winter squash and corn and think of these foods more like bread or pasta on your plate. Although they are healthful options, calories in starchy vegetables can add up more quickly than with their less starchy counterparts. On the flip side, it is really hard to overeat carrots, greens, tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, summer squash, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, etc. so have heaping servings of these whenever you can. Brightly colored fruits and veggies are packed with beneficial nutrients so aim to have lots of different colors represented on your plate.
2.  Choose whole grains as often as possible. Think brown rice, whole grain breads, oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, etc. Whole grains have more fiber and nutrients than refined versions. The additional fiber will help you feel fuller and more satisfied when eating, in addition to keeping your GI tract healthy.
3.  Cut back on packaged foods. Aim to eat more whole foods to reduce your intake of sodium and preservatives. When choosing packaged goods, look for those with the fewest ingredients listed and pick those with recognizable ingredients.
4.  Limit sugary drinks. Choose beverages that are naturally calorie-free.
5.  If you eat meat, choose lean poultry or beef. Organic options will further reduce your exposure to hormones which may be beneficial. Include fish often. Portion size should be 1/3 of your plate or less. Emphasis should be on the plant foods on your plate, not the animal protein. Aim to have at least one vegetarian meal each week and include things like beans and tofu.
6.  Limit alcohol. For women, reducing intake to 1 drink per day or less is associated with the lowest risk of cancer and other diseases. 1 drink = 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

Of course, it’s always important to individualize nutrition and lifestyle goals and determine what a healthy weight is for you — this is not a “one size fits all” scenario.  Behavior change is difficult and takes time.  Small, gradual changes work best.  A registered dietitian (RD) can help you through this process.  If you have survived breast cancer or have a strong genetic risk for it, consider reaching out to an RD to get some support around healthy changes you can make.  Be proactive and take charge of your health!

All information is in keeping with current recommendations from the American Cancer Society and American Institute for Cancer Research. To see more information from these groups, visit www.cancer.org or www.aicr.org

Blog written by Leslie Judge, MS, RD, COD