Diet is thought to be partly responsible for about 30% to 40% of all cancers. No food or diet can prevent you from getting breast cancer. But some foods can make your body the healthiest it can be, boost your immune system, and help keep your risk for breast cancer as low as possible. Research has shown that getting the nutrients you need from a variety of foods, especially fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, can make you feel your best and give your body the energy it needs. Eating food grown without pesticides may protect against unhealthy cell changes associated with pesticide use in animal studies.
Breast cancer is less common in countries where the typical diet is plant-based and low in total fat (polyunsaturated fat and saturated fat). Still, research on adult women in the United States hasn't found breast cancer risk to be related to dietary fat intake. But one study suggests that girls who eat a high-fat diet during puberty, even if they don't become overweight or obese, may have a higher risk of developing breast cancer later in life.
More research is needed to better understand the effect of diet on breast cancer risk. But it is clear that calories do count -- and fat is a major source of calories. High-fat diets can lead to being overweight or obese, which is a breast cancer risk factor. Overweight women are thought to be at higher risk for breast cancer because the extra fat cells make estrogen, which can cause extra breast cell growth. This extra growth increases the risk of breast cancer.
Doctors and dietitians are eagerly waiting for the results of the Women's Healthy Eating and Living (WHEL) study. WHEL is looking at whether a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and low in fat can help reduce breast cancer recurrence. But the results won't be ready for a few more years.
Steps you can take
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (more than 5 cups a day). Most dietitians agree that a diet rich in plant foods may be healthier than a diet that contains a lot of animal products. Fruits and vegetables have lower fat content and higher fiber content compared to animal products, and most are packed with nutrients. Some easy ways to add more vegetables and fruit to your diet:
- Buy a new fruit or vegetable every time you go to the grocery store. Healthy eating means you are eating a VARIETY of foods. Sure, carrots are full of vitamins, but if all you ate were carrots, you wouldn't be healthy. Treat yourself to a nice honeydew melon. Don't be afraid to try something new! Put some eggplant or asparagus into your cart. Many stores have instructions on how to prepare them. If yours doesn't, ask someone in the produce section for help.
- Add chopped squash, mushrooms, onions, or carrots to jarred or fresh spaghetti sauce (serve on pasta for a great dinner). The more vegetables the merrier!
- Eat tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes — raw in salad, sandwiches, salsa, juice, alone (like a piece of fruit), or cooked in sauces. Cooking actually enhances a tomato's nutritional value.
- Eat whole fruit rather than drinking fruit juice. Whole fruit reduces calories, adds fiber, and increases feelings of fullness. While dried fruit has just as much fiber as fresh fruit, the calories per serving are much higher (dried fruit also can make you gassy).
- Snack on organic baby carrots and celery (keep a cooler of them in the car if you're running errands all day).
- Throw handfuls of spinach into stews and soups.
- Add chopped scallions, shredded lettuce, or cabbage to potato salad.
- Add broccoli, tomatoes, or zucchini to scrambled eggs or omelets.
- Freeze grapes and berries in single-serving containers for a cool treat during summer months.
Limit your fat intake. Try to make your fat intake less than 20% of your total calories per day (the average person's fat intake is about 35% of total calories).
- Eat less salad dressing. Use a non-fat or low-fat dressing, or put a small amount of your regular dressing on the side and dip your fork in it before spearing your salad.
- Cook with broth or bullion — chicken broth or vegetable stock — instead of oil or butter.
- Limit your use of butter and cream cheese. Use other things to jazz up your bread, such as unsweetened fruit puree or preserves. Even a thin coat of melted dark chocolate usually has less fat (lay your bread flat in the oven with a few chocolate chips on top).
- Eliminate some foods with the highest fat content (fried foods, margarine), and gradually lower the amount of fat you eat.
- Avoid processed meats and cold cuts. They're usually high in fat, salt, and other preservatives.
- Choose lean cuts of meat and poultry.
- Trim fat from meat, poultry, and fish.
- Remove the skin from poultry and fish.
Mix up your protein options. Some research suggests that there may be a link between eating red meat and breast cancer. Most of the concern is about processed meats (because of high fat, salt, and nitrate levels) and beef given extra hormones and antibiotics. If you'd like to limit how much red meat you eat, vary your protein sources.
- Try fish or lamb instead of beef or pork.
- Have an egg white omelet for dinner.
- Use beans or lentils as your main dish — try a new vegetarian chili recipe.
- Opt for chicken one night a week.
- Try non-nitrate turkey bacon instead of regular pork bacon.
Add healthy choices to your diet. Here are some tips to ease you into healthy cooking and eating:
- Choose non-fat (skim) milk and other dairy products. But if you're used to drinking whole milk, mix whole milk with non- or low-fat milk to ease you through the change. You may want to buy organic dairy products to get higher levels of certain nutrients, such as conjugated linoleic acid (an antioxidant) and to avoid extra hormones given to dairy cattle to increase milk production.
- Avoid salt-cured, pickled, and smoked foods. They tend to have a lot of salt and nitrates, which can contribute to high blood pressure in some people.
- Choose small portions (about 6 ounces cooked) of lean meat and poultry (without skin) per day. So if you eat meat twice a day, each portion should be about 3 ounces.
- Bake or broil food. Decrease the amount of calories in your food by baking or broiling it rather than frying.
- Cover your plate with the low-calorie foods. Fill two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, or beans, and one-third or less with meat and dairy products. Try spinach lasagna, vegetarian chili, or steamed or sauteed vegetables to get more vegetables in your diet.
- Choose 100% juice and whole-grain breads at breakfast. While it's better to eat whole fruit rather than drink juice, if your morning isn't complete without it, make sure it's 100% juice and not a blend with added sugar. Add fresh or frozen fruit to your oatmeal. Add a banana or berries to your cold cereal. If berries aren't in season, look in the freezer section for frozen organic blueberries — they thaw in the bowl and keep your milk cold.
- Eat healthy snacks. Try organic baby carrots, bell pepper strips, orange sections, fat-free yogurt, or a handful of almonds.
- Eat more fiber. Besides easing constipation, fiber can help lower cholesterol and glucose levels. It also can make you feel full longer, so you're less likely to overeat. Unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are excellent sources of fiber. Choose a high fiber breakfast cereal (5 or more grams of fiber per serving), or add a few tablespoons of unprocessed wheat bran to your favorite cereal. Use whole-grain flour for half or all of the white flour when you bake. Add kidney beans or black beans to soups and salads. Toss vegetables into pasta sauce.
- Consider buying organic. There's a real concern that chemicals used to grow food may cause health problems, including an increase in breast cancer risk. To reduce your exposure to pesticides, you might want to buy organically grown food or organically produced dairy products. Visit the Exposure to Chemicals in Food page to learn more.
For more information on healthy eating, as well as compounds in plant foods that are good for your health, visit the Breastcancer.org Nutrition section.