The relationship between what you eat and your risk of developing breast cancer often makes the headlines. Women, however, should be as concerned — if not more concerned — with how much they eat as with what they eat. The often-repeated recommendation to watch your weight and eat your fruits and vegetables is the best advice to pay attention to.
The Proof Is Not in the Pudding
In some studies, lower rates of breast cancer have been linked with diets that contain less saturated fat and more fruits and vegetables. Further, eating a healthful diet has been associated with reducing a variety of different cancers. Not surprisingly, the National Cancer Institute recommends that women and men consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Yet, according to Harvard University's landmark Nurses' Health Study, there is no definitive link between breast-cancer risk and specific dietary factors (the types of foods or vitamins you consume). Researchers continue to study whether specific ingredients in foods — vitamins, minerals, or antioxidants — may play an essential role in reducing a woman's risk of breast cancer. The truth remains hidden — or at least is only a hypothesis — for now.
Here's the real scoop on food and breast cancer: Less is more. The more your body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) rises above 25, the greater your chance of developing breast cancer. Overweight women have higher estrogen levels than thinner women. In addition to the other health problems caused by packing on the pounds, higher estrogen levels are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
What You Can Do
While the verdict on diet and cancer risk remains cloudy, you can still take action.
Your best chance to decrease your breast-cancer risk is to maintain a healthy body weight, starting at a young age. According to Walter C. Willett, M.D., chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, the two factors that influence what you weigh are amount of physical activity and how much you eat. Dr. Willett, author of "Eat, Drink And Be Healthy," suggests focusing on the following dietary practices to monitor and control the calories you consume.
Watch What You Eat
- Keep track of your calories. To maintain your current weight, you have to burn as many calories as you consume. Writing down what you eat is the first step toward making a change. Right now, you may have no idea how many calories you take in each day.
- Practice defensive eating. Stop before you are stuffed, don't eat things just because they are available. Choose small portions, and eat slowly.
Control Your Diet
Eat a variety of healthy foods rather than trying to find a perfect diet or a cancer-fighting regimen. Consider taking the following steps:
- Limit bad fats.
- Increase good fats.
- Pile on the fruits and vegetables (at least five servings per day).
Limit Bad Fats (trans fats and saturated fats)
Eating a diet loaded with the wrong kinds of fats may or may not be bad for breast tissue. We do know, however, that bad fats mean trouble for your heart. Trans fats raise your LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and lower your HDL cholesterol. Saturated fats raise your serum cholesterol, specifically LDL cholesterol.
Carefully read the ingredient lists on all the packaged foods you buy. If you see "hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" you have found a source of trans fats. To determine the amount of saturated fat in a particular food, look for the serving size and the amount of saturated fat (in grams) on the nutrition label.
- Trans-fat food sources: margarine; vegetable shortening; foods containing "hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil," such as cookies, crackers, pastries, microwave popcorn, and some frozen meals; deep-fried foods such as donuts, French fries, and fast foods
- Saturated-fat food sources: cheese; butter; fatty meats (hamburger, steak, prime rib); cold cuts; poultry skin; whole milk and whole-milk products, such as ice cream and cream; desserts prepared with butter, cheese, coconut, including cakes, pies, cookies, etc.; tropical oils such as palm kernel or coconut
Increase Good Fats (monounsaturated)
Some European studies suggest that olive oil and other monounsaturated fats have a protective effect against breast cancer. Yet, once again, the jury's still out. Data from the Nurses' Health Study in the United States did not show a similar level of association.
Instead, listen to your heart for advice. People with diets that contain more monounsaturated fats have lower LDL cholesterol levels and less heart disease. All fats are high in calories, so eating too much can increase body weight.
- Monounsaturated-fat food sources: olive oil; canola oil; peanut oil; nuts, including almonds, cashews, filberts, macadamias, pecans, pistachios and peanuts; avocados; peanut butter (look for all-natural brands) and other nut butters
Pile on Fruits and Vegetables
As mentioned, nutrition studies have produced mixed messages on whether eating fruits and vegetables specifically decreases a woman's risk of breast cancer. Carotenoids (potent antioxidants in deeply colored fruits and vegetables — especially green leafy ones) show some promise of protection.
According to the Nurses' Health Study, premenopausal women who ate a diet rich in carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin) developed breast cancer less often than women with diets containing fewer carotenoids. But, once again, take that diet news with a grain of salt since it may not be applicable to a wider population or may be due to factors other than diet.
As you wait for more research results, consider that most vegetables contain fewer calories per ounce than other foods. Filling up on greens can help you maintain a healthy weight because you can eat more of them more often. Even better, a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables can help to lower blood pressure and decrease the chance of heart attack and stroke.
Fruit and vegetable food sources:
- Vitamin C — oranges, green and red peppers, collard greens, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, papaya, strawberries, kiwi
- Beta carotene — apricots, carrots, broccoli, pumpkin, cantaloupe, sweet potato, dark leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, Hubbard squash, papaya
- Folic acid — dark leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, sweet potato, orange juice, oranges
- Vitamin B6 — banana, sweet potato, avocado, broccoli
The Bottom Line
Save yourself the time and the trouble of foraging through the latest health headlines. Instead, focus on these twin truths: Maintaining a proper weight and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will reward you with good health.