October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and a great time to learn more about how to lower your risk of the most common cancer in women. While some breast cancer has a genetic link, the good news is 20 years of research finds maintaining a healthy weight, making wise food choices and getting more physical activity can go a long way in improving your odds against developing cancer. So let’s take a closer look at ways you can change your diet to improve your cancer resistance.
Being overweight is a significant factor linked to breast cancer. But even losing small amounts of weight has health benefits. Changes don’t have to be that dramatic to achieve results. Start by eating more whole grains, fruits and veggies in place of higher fat, sugary snacks; watch portion sizes so you don’t overeat and choose leaner cuts of meat and low-fat dairy. Using low-calorie sweeteners is one way to cut calories so you can still enjoy sweets.
Both soluble (oats, beans, lentils, pears, apples and flax) and insoluble (wheat bran, nuts, seeds, brown rice, broccoli, celery, lettuce) fiber play a role, especially for women eating 30 grams a day. Insoluble fiber sticks to free estrogens in the gut and sweeps them out so you’re exposed to less of the hormone, which lowers your chances for breast cancer. Eating at 3 – 4 whole grains and 5 – 6 fruits and veggies daily can ensure you get the 30 grams you need.
Both the amount and type of fat matters. Unsaturated omega-3 fats reduce inflammation, a condition that damages healthy tissue and encourage cells – including cancer cells – to grow. Boost intake of omega-3’s with 3 – 4 servings/week of fatty fish like tuna and salmon, walnuts, flax and chia seeds. Research also suggests a high total fat intake increases breast cancer so focus on baked and broiled rather than fried foods, lean meats and low-fat dairy and more naturally fat-free fruits, veggies and grains.
These are compounds found in plant foods that keep the immune system healthy and neutralize free radicals and other chemicals that promote cancer growth. Phytonutrients include flavonoids (soy, chickpeas and tea), carotenoids (butternut squash, cantaloupe, carrots, sweet potato), anthocyanins (blueberries, cherries, red cabbage) and sulfides (garlic, onions). By piling your plate with an array of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, you’ll be sure to get enough of these important cancer-fighting nutrients.
You see commercials about probiotics all the time but what’s the real benefit? These organisms, found in fermented or cultured dairy foods like yogurt and Kefir, contain lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria that can enhance the immune system and inhibit cancer cell growth, including breast tumors. Enjoy these tasty foods along with phytonutrient-rich fruits in a parfait or smoothie for a double dose of cancer protection.
Keep in mind that whole foods are always a better choice than supplements. There is currently no research supporting the use of dietary supplements for breast cancer prevention, but ample evidence that a nutrient-rich diet and more exercise can help.
If you’re interested in learning more about what you can do to support breast cancer research, check out the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
A special thanks to Kelly Current, Dietetic Intern at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, for her help with research for this blog.
Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Dallas. She serves as a nutrition communications consultant to a variety of food and nutrition organizations, including the Calorie Control Council. She is passionate about promoting fact-based food and nutrition information to help people enjoy nutritious eating. Follow her on Twitter @NevaRDLD and check out her blog at www.Neva