Breast cancer and diet: Is there a link?

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Google “breast cancer diet” and you’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of links to diet plans that claim to reduce your risk of breast cancer. But can the right diet really prevent breast cancer or improve your chance or survival if you have breast cancer?

Unfortunately, we just don’t know for sure. One of the most controversial questions is whether or not a low-fat diet reduces the risk of breast cancer.  Big population studies suggest that fat consumption is linked to breast cancer risk. That is, populations with higher fat intake have higher breast cancer rates. But clinical trials designed to test this theory have been inconclusive.

Soy is another area of controversy.  Soy contains phytoestrogens that can act as weak estrogens in the human body. Some believe that soy estrogens may stimulate the growth of estrogen-sensitive cancers. Others argue that the weaker soy estrogens are protective because the block the activity of stronger human estrogen.  Studies have yet to convincingly prove the case one way or another but to be on the safe side, most experts recommend soy foods be consumed in moderation.

People who eat more fruits and vegetables and less red meat have a reduced risk of cancer overall–although scientists have so far been unable to pinpoint exactly which foods or combinations of foods may be responsible.  There’s no doubt that fruits and vegetables are full  of anti-oxidants and cancer-fighting nutrients. But so far, the protective benefits of individual foods or nutrients have only been shown in the laboratory or in animals, not in humans.  Studies on nutritional supplements have been particularly disappointing.

Despite what the magazines and book authors may claim, there is no convincing proof that any particular diet or combination of foods reduces your risk of breast cancer specifically. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. In fact, there are three things you can do that will DEFINITELY reduce your risk of breast cancer and improve your odds of survival if you are diagnosed.

The best breast cancer prevention diet

The best breast cancer prevention diet is the one that helps you maintain a healthy weight.  Being overweight is a primary risk factor for breast cancer. In addition to containing cancer-fighting compound, fruits and vegetables are low in calories. Eating more fruits and vegetables can help you lose weight and improve your nutritional status at the same time.

The next most important thing you can do to reduce your risk is to limit your consumption of alcohol to no more than one drink per day.  If you do drink alcohol, be sure that you are getting enough folic acid. A large study conducted in Australia suggests that adequate folic acid intake can negate the increased breast cancer risk associated with moderate alcohol consumption.

And, finally, your breast cancer prevention diet should include at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Studies show that moderate exercise is highly protective against breast cancer and vastly improves survival rates among women with breast cancer.

More resources:

Does diet affect breast cancer risk? Journal of Breast Cancer Research
Recommendations for Cancer Prevention American Institute of Cancer Research
Foods that Fight Cancer American Institute of Cancer Research
Diet and Lifestyle and Survival from Breast Cancer Sprecher Institute for Comparative Cancer Research

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