Can Food Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer?


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. And no food or diet can cure cancer, though some of them may help control treatment side effects or help your body get well after treatment. Some food choices may help cancer treatment work more effectively or may help keep you healthy. Others can be dangerous and can interfere with treatment and recovery.

Healthy weight reduces risk of first-time breast cancer and recurrence.

Maintaining a healthy weight may help reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back. Studies have shown that women who gained weight after their breast cancer diagnosis had an increased risk of recurrence.

Studies on maintaining a healthy weight and lowering the risk of a first-time breast cancer suggest that overweight women have an increased risk of breast cancer after menopause compared to women at a healthy weight.

If you're not sure what your healthy weight should be, use some of the tips and tools available on the Assess Your Weight page. A healthy eating plan should include some physical activity. Aim for 3 to 4 hours of walking per week to start. If you're having treatment right now, you may need to start slowly and work up to this.

Low-fat diet may reduce risk of recurrence and first-time breast cancer.

Sticking to a low-fat diet may help reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back. One study in which women got only about 25% of their daily calories from fat found a lower risk of recurrence, mostly in women who'd been diagnosed with estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer. It will take more than this one study to know who is most likely to get the biggest benefit from specific dietary changes. But no matter what kind of cancer you've had, you might get significant benefit from lowering the amount of fat in your diet. Plus, other healthy choices are more likely to come with a low-fat diet, such as eating more fruits and vegetables and losing weight. All these changes together may help lower your risk of recurrence.

The large Women's Health Initiative Trial compared the breast cancer risk of postmenopausal women who ate a low-fat diet to those who continued to eat their regular diet. The researchers didn't find any significant differences in breast cancer risk between the two groups. But the study did suggest that a low-fat diet may reduce the risk of first-time breast cancer for women whose diets are very high in fat to begin with. More research is needed to determine if this relationship becomes stronger over time. And reducing fat and increasing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet will ensure your body is getting enough nutrients and contribute to your overall health. Also, a low-fat diet will probably help you lose weight, if you are trying to do that.

No foods or supplements are linked specifically to breast cancer.

There is no strong evidence that any specific foods or supplements will lower the risk of getting breast cancer or reduce the risk of recurrence.

Research has shown that getting the nutrients you need from a variety of foods, especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can make you feel your best and give your body the energy it needs. You can get many of the nutrients you need from the food you eat. If you're considering taking supplements, it's a good idea to have a registered dietitian evaluate your diet. You may need a bit more of a specific nutrient like folate or vitamin A. That's why women both with or without a prior breast cancer often take a multiple vitamin and mineral supplement. Many women also need calcium supplements to meet their daily calcium requirements.

Research on diet and breast cancer is ongoing.

Studies are looking at the relationship between diet and breast cancer risk and the risk of recurrence. The Women's Health Initiative Trial suggested that a diet very low in fat may reduce the risk of breast cancer. More research is needed in this important area for women who are interested in eating well to reduce their risk of ever getting breast cancer.

In the meantime, here's what dietitians suggest:

  • Keep your body weight in a healthy range for your height and frame. Body mass index, though not a perfect measurement, can help you estimate your healthy weight.
  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit (more than 5 cups a day).
  • Try to limit your fat intake to less than 20% of your total calories per day. This is an extremely small amount of fat to eat (an average amount is about 30 to 35% of total calories per day). Start by eliminating some foods with the highest fat content (like fried foods and margarine) and gradually lower the amount of fat you eat.
  • Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Avoid trans fats, red meats, and charred or smoked foods.

You'll find that processed foods generally don't fit in this type of diet as well as fresh foods do.

To develop a healthy diet that meets your needs, seek advice from a registered dietitian. He or she will thoroughly evaluate your medical, diet, and weight history. Then the registered dietitian will work with you on an individualized plan to meet all your goals:

  • keep your risk of breast cancer as low as possible
  • provide you with good nutrition
  • keep you as healthy as possible

Expert Quote

"It can be confusing to read all the stories in the media about certain foods. Nutrition is a young science. Each study is filling in another small piece of knowledge."

-- Diana Dyer, M.S., R.D.

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