By: Mehreen Husain, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.O.
With the exception of skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women and one in eight women are at risk of getting the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.
For women with breast cancer, eating nutritious foods along with regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight are important parts of a comprehensive treatment program. Together, they are integral to treatment and research has shown they play a key role in lowering the risk for recurrence and in some cases preventing cancer altogether.
The Nutrition Link
The World Cancer Research Fund estimates that about 20% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States are related to being overweight or obese, physical inactivity, excess alcohol consumption and/or poor nutrition.
In general, research indicates that excess weight and an unhealthy diet increase inflammation throughout the body can cause the body to produce more estrogen and insulin, hormones that can stimulate cancer growth.
Moreover, certain foods such as red meat and other high-fat animal products, highly processed foods and foods with added sugar, can increase the risk for weight gain and subsequently cancer. In addition, drinking alcohol can influence estrogen levels and has been recognized in some studies as a carcinogen.
Conversely, combined with regular physical activity, certain foods, especially those that are plant-based, have protective compounds that can help lower the risk for cancer and assist in maintaining a healthy weight.
Eat a Plant Based Diet
Whether you’re a breast cancer survivor, have been recently diagnosed or are concerned about lowering your risk, the following tips can help support wellness.
- Eat a plant-based diet. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes all carry certain cancer-fighting compounds. Berries, for instance, are full of different flavonoids that may decrease free radical damage to DNA that can lead to cancer. Legumes (peas and beans) are rich in lignans and have been shown to decrease growth factors and chronic inflammation. They’re also a good source of protein. Like berries, tomatoes also decrease free radical damage and boost the self-destructive nature of cancer cells.
- Reduce added sugar. In addition to fat, added sugar is one of the main contributors to weight gain, a risk factor for breast cancer. Moreover, research shows that it is sugar’s relationship to higher insulin levels and related growth factors that may impact cancer cell growth the greatest. Soda, juice and processed foods are typically high in added sugar. To reduce your sugar intake, try swapping soda for sparkling water. Read food labels to detect added sugars and try to limit processed foods overall.
- Engage in regular physical activity. For patients who are able to tolerate physical activity and have clearance from their physician, the American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activities each week. Even when undergoing treatment, staying physically active is important, as activity can help battle fatigue and maintain strength.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Eating a healthy diet and exercising can go a long way to help achieve and maintain a healthy weight. In addition to consuming more plant-based foods and reducing added sugar, limit portion sizes and practice mindful eating. Try keeping a food journal or use a mobile app to track what you eat and drink every day.
- Limit or avoid alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol increases the risk for some cancers, including breast cancer. This applies to all types of alcoholic drinks, including red and white wine, beer, cocktails, and liquor. The more you drink, the higher your cancer risk. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that if you drink alcohol at all, drink in moderation—no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two drinks a day for men. If you don’t drink, don’t start drinking because of any perceived health benefits.
Penn Medicine Princeton Health, through its Center for Cancer Care, will host a discussion titled “Nutrition Tips for Breast Cancer Patients” from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 4 at the Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center Edward & Marie Matthews Center for Cancer Care, 1 Plainsboro Road, Plainsboro.
To register for the free session, call 609-853-6788. To find a physician with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 888-742.7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org.
Mehreen Husain, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.O., is a registered dietitian and board certified specialist in oncology nutrition with Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center.