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Reducing breast cancer risk with early diet changes

October 24, 2013

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) estimates that 38 percent of all breast cancer cases in the U.S. could be prevented with simple changes to diet and exercise. We are also learning that adult breast health is largely determined during the adolescent years, when the breast tissue is developing and is most susceptible to nutritional and environmental influences. Research shows that the consumption of certain foods during the breast development process may actually change its physiology, thereby making it more or less inclined to developing cancer in the future. Although the mechanisms of action are not yet completely understood, clinical evidence has shown that there are a few basic dietary practices that appear to be protective in the development of breast cancer.

Plant-based Foods

Adolescent girls should not rely on meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy foods as their primary sources of fat and protein. Instead, more plant-based foods should be included. Nuts and seeds, beans and peas, avocadoes, olive oil, whole soy foods and cold-water fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, and halibut make great alternates.

Due to their high amount of phytochemicals, omega-3 fatty acids, carotenoids, vitamin E, and other potentially protective compounds, walnuts have recently been added to the AICR’s list of Foods That Fight Cancer. A 2012 study in the journal Nutrition and Cancer showed a significantly decreased risk of breast cancer in mice when their regular diet included a modest amount of walnuts throughout their life.

Use these substitutions to include more plant-based foods in your daughter’s diet:

  • Dress vegetables with extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter
  • Serve organic, natural peanut or almond butter on a whole-grain bagel instead of cream cheese
  • Use sliced avocado or a smear of flavored hummus on a sandwich instead of mayonnaise
  • Adopt "Meatless Mondays"- meals focused on beans, lentils, and other legumes, such vegetarian chili loaded with various beans, vegetables, and spices 
Whole soy foods

Whole soy foods include tofu, tempeh, edamame (soybeans), soymilk, soy nuts and miso. Soy is considered a “complete protein,” as it is one of the few plant foods to naturally contain all the amino acids your body needs to make protein. Many forms of soy also contain a high amount of fiber, potassium, magnesium, copper and manganese. Soy foods contain significant iron, but how well our bodies absorb it is unknown. Calcium fortified soymilk and tofu can be used as occasional dairy alternatives.  Soy contains phytochemicals that may lower blood cholesterol, protect against cancer, and act as an antioxidant. These include isoflavones, saponins, phenolic acids, phytic acid, and sphingolipids.

Previous concerns with soy and increased breast cancer risk are now being put to rest. Apprehension stemmed from the isoflavones (genistein and daidzein) found in whole soy foods. This group of plant compounds can imitate the hormone estrogen, and high blood levels of estrogen are linked to increased breast cancer risk. Fears were emphasized when rodent studies suggested that isoflavones led to breast cancer cell growth. Researchers now know that rodents metabolize soy isoflavones differently than humans, and intake of whole soy foods does not lead to increased estrogen levels in humans. For women without cancer, studies on soy consumption either show no link or a slightly protective link to breast cancer risk. Some research suggests that protective effects may primarily come from consuming soy during childhood and adolescence. Studies have confirmed that up to three servings per day of whole soy foods (up to 100mg/day of isoflavones) consumed in Asian populations long-term is not linked to increased breast cancer risk.

1 serving of soy = 1 cup soy milk, ½ cup cooked soy beans, 1 oz. soy nuts, 2 Tbsps. of soy nut butter

Cruciferous and Green Leafy Vegetables

The connection between cruciferous vegetables and their cancer prevention properties is fairly well studied. This group of non-starchy vegetables includes: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and turnips. All cruciferous vegetables contain glucosinolates, which are broken down into isothiocyanates and indoles. Lab studies have shown these compounds decrease inflammation, inhibit enzymes that activate carcinogens, and stimulate enzymes that de-activate carcinogens. Some studies show that these substances may also alter the active form of estrogen into a weaker form, which may decrease risk for certain hormone-linked cancers, like breast cancer. Broccoli florets or cuts of cauliflower with hummus dip are an easy way to include this group of cancer-fighting vegetables in one’s diet. Roast Brussels sprouts with olive oil and garlic powder to caramelize the natural sugar and reduce bitterness.

Green leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens, spinach, lettuce, and Swiss chard are excellent sources of fiber, folate and a wide range of carotenoids. Some lab studies have discovered that the carotenoids in dark green, leafy vegetables can inhibit the growth of certain types of breast cancer cells. Throw a handful of spinach into a breakfast smoothie, bake some kale chips for a snack, or include Swiss chard in a homemade soup to increase intake of these powerhouse vegetables.

By incorporating a healthy diet into your lifestyle, starting at a young age, you can help decrease your risk for breast cancer, just one of the many benefits of adopting healthy eating habits!