Breast Cancer, Diet & Healthy Living: Putting It All Together

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer is diagnosed in over 220,000 women each year in the US. With one in eight or 12.3 percent of women being diagnosed, what can we do to prevent breast cancer or at the very least reduce our risk?

We have all heard the saying, "You are what you eat." If we can control breast cancer through our diet and healthy living, we can focus more on prevention to reduce the incidence of this common cancer that affects so many of our family and friends.

Breast Cancer and Healthy Living - Connecting the DotsDiets High in Animal Fat

The Nurses’ Health Study II showed, "premenopausal women who ate diets high in animal fat had a 40 to 50% higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who ate less animal fat.” Red meat and high-fat dairy intake may increase levels of estrogen which may also increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence and survival.

Other studies have shown the post-menopausal age group who consumed high fat diets also had a higher risk of breast cancer.  The “good” fats include monounsaturated (olive oil, avocados, peanut butter) and polyunsaturated (salmon, flaxseed, nuts) fats while the “(very) bad” fats include saturated (high-fat meat, butter, dairy) and trans (fried foods, commercially baked snacks &pastries) fats. Omega-3 fish oil, a polyunsaturated fat, has also been shown to lower the risk of breast cancer. Reducing animal-based foods and dietary fat, especially saturated fats, to less than 10 percent of daily calories will lower your breast cancer risk.

Plant Foods Boost our Immune System

There is convincing evidence showing a diet rich in an assortment of plant foods such as whole grains, legumes, vegetable and fruits will drastically lower rates of cancer. To keep it simple, the more colorful your selection of fruits and vegetables are, along with whole grains and legumes, the more resilient and strong your immune system. Chemicals found in plant food help protect against cancer including the phytoestrogens-isoflavones, coumestans and lignans.

Other immune boosting nutrients found in a plant rich diet include vitamin C, E and D, B vitamins, especially folate, vitamin A (beta carotene) and phytochemicals contained in tomatoes and coffee. Researchers recommend eating a variety of plant-based foods can lower your cancer risk by at least 20 percent.

Alcohol Consumption: How much is too much?

We know drinking alcohol increases your risk of heart disease, liver disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and colorectal cancer. Now we can add breast cancer to that list: It has been found having two or more drinks a day increases the chance of developing breast cancer as much as 41 percent.

Even moderate alcohol intake (one alcoholic drink a day or more) slightly increases your risk of breast cancer. If you drink moderate amounts of alcohol it's recommended to take 600mcg of folate to counteract the effect moderate alcohol consumption has on breast cancer. 

Physical Activity

We already know physical activity helps to maintain a healthy weight, reduces body fat, increases lean muscle mass, strengthens the immune system and improves our mental and emotional well-being. Regular weekly exercise involving at least 2 ½ hours a week of moderate intensity activity (even brisk walking!) has also been shown to reduce your risk of breast cancer. 


Obesity affects 27 percent of the population of the US. Being overweight or obese increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes. Additionally for women there is an established association with obesity to breast, ovarian, uterine and colon cancer.

Weight control is an essential part of good health. Ideally you want your BMI to be < 25 for optimal health. Obesity has been identified as an independent risk factor for developing breast cancer. Obesity or having a BMI > 30 increases your risk of breast cancer by 33 percent in both pre- and postmenopausal women. Obesity is quickly overtaking tobacco as a leading "preventable" cause of cancer. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1.5 billion people worldwide are overweight or obese. Do you know your BMI?


Soy is an ideal protein that comes in the form of beans and legumes. Different forms of soy include whole beans, flour and commonly processed in soymilk, tofu, cheese, soybean oil, yogurt and miso. The nutritional benefits of soy depends on if is processed or not. In the United States the majority of soy consumed is in the form of processed soy which has less nutritional value. When Chinese women were studied it was found when soy foods were consumed during adolescence, premenopausal women had some protection against breast cancer.  The effects of soy intake as an adult are less clear and more research is needed to understand the true relationship.

Vitamin D and Calcium

Vitamin D and calcium have been shown to have a role in the prevention of breast cancer. Studies found women who consumed higher amounts of vitamin D and calcium from dairy products reduced their risk of breast cancer. Newer studies have shown a connection between low Vitamin D levels and breast cancer recurrence and shortened survival. The daily recommended intakes of dietary calcium are 1000mg. The vitamin D daily recommended intake of 600 IU is debatable since studies show higher amounts of vitamin D are necessary to achieve the cancer prevention benefits. Getting your vitamin D level checked is the first step in knowing how much supplementation is needed to optimize your intake of what some refer to as the "wonder vitamin."

The three most important things you can do to reduce your risk of breast cancer and other major diseases are:

1. Consume a colorful plant-based diet.

2. Limit alcohol consumption.

3. Control your weight.

It’s about time we start to look at prevention of breast cancer as opposed to early detection.

This post has been reproduced with the permission of Dr. SherryTM


Additional Sources:

Boffotta P, Hasibe M. Alcohol and cancer. Lancet Oncol 2006;72:149-56

Boyd NF, Stone J, Vogt KN, Connelly BS, Martin LJ, Minkin S. Dietary fat and breast cancer risk revisited: a meta-analysis of the published literature. Br J Cancer. 2003 Nov 3;89(9):1672-85. Eating unhealthy food. Accessed October 9, 2015.

De Stefani E, Ronco A, Mendilaharsu M, Guidobono M, Deneo-Pellegrini H. Meat intake, heterocyclic amines, and risk of breast cancer: a case-control study in Uruguay. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 1997;6(8):573-81.

Minger, D. The China Study: A Formal Analysis and Response August 2, 2010. Accessed October 9, 2015.

National Cancer Institute. Breast cancer prevention (PDQ®). Accessed October 9, 2015.

Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine. Breast cancer. Accessed October 9, 2015.

Protani M, Coory M, Martin JH. Effect of obesity on survival of women with breast cancer: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Breast Cancer Res Treat 2010;123:627-35

Saarinen NM et al. Role of dietary lignans in the reduction of breast cancer risk. Mol Nutr Food Res 2007 Jul 51(7):857-866.

Thompson Lu et al. Dietary flaxseed alters tumor biological markers in postmenopausal breast cancer Clin Cancer Res 2005 May 15;11(10):3828-3835.

USDA. Inside the Pyramid: Meat and Beans. Why is it important to make lean or low-fat choices from the Meat and Beans group? Last updated on October 08, 2008.


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