If you’re a nutrition-savvy woman, you probably know to eat plenty of omega-3-rich coldwater fish to bolster heart health, or to make sure you’re getting ample fiber to ward off colon cancer and diabetes. But how often do you eat for breast health?
The truth is that what you eat and how much you get of certain nutrients can play a huge role in lessening the risk of cancer and other breast problems, say experts.
In fact, a third of the nearly 200,000 new breast cancer cases every year in the U.S. could be prevented by dietary changes, says cancer expert Leena Hilakivi-Clarke, professor of oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC.
In addition to getting ample servings of fruits and vegetables and whole grains in breads and cereals, Hilakivi-Clarke and other experts recommend working these breast-smart food and supplement choices into your everyday habits.
Trade in your potato chips for a handful of walnuts. Walnuts contain healthy omega-3s, as well as antioxidants and phytosterols (another type of plant fat)—all of which have been shown to slow the growth of breast tumors. Earlier this year, a study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research showed that mice eating the human equivalent of 2 ounces (that’s just 14 walnuts) a day were much less likely to develop breast cancer, even though these rodents were at very high risk for the disease.
Related research shows that the same amount of walnuts in the diet can slow breast tumor growth by blocking cancer cell proliferation, which means that the breast tumors that did develop grew more slowly. Since walnuts pack a wallop of fat (even though it’s the healthy kind, it’s still fat) and concentrated calories, make sure you’re substituting walnuts for other snacks and not just eating them in addition to your normal intake, as weight gain raises the risk of breast cancer.
When researchers took a close look at the beverage choices of thousands of women, they found that women who regularly drank green tea lowered their risk of developing breast cancer by 12 percent. The more years and more often these women drank tea, the stronger was their protection from breast cancer.
Tea contains powerful antioxidants, with the superstar being one called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Green and white teas, in particular, are packed with EGCG, although black and oolong teas also have some. EGCG deactivates harmful free radicals before they damage DNA and trigger cancerous changes.
But if you have breast pain or fibrocystic breast changes, you might consider avoiding methylxanthines, the family of caffeine and caffeine-like compounds in caffeinated coffee and tea (and in small amounts in chocolate). These can encourage painful breast cysts, says William Dunn, MD, from the West Michigan Cancer Center. If you’re quitting coffee and tea, be aware that it can take a few months for the pain to decrease or go away completely, notes Katherine Lee, MD, from Cleveland Clinic’s Breast Center.
Keeping regular isn’t the only perk of a fiber-rich diet; fiber reduces the risk of breast cancer and keeps fibrocystic disease, mastalgia, and cysts at bay, says James Anderson, MD, a nutrition expert from the University of Kentucky.
Fiber’s role in breast-cancer risk reduction is still not completely understood, but the leading theory, says Anderson, is that fiber both “increases the excretion of estrogens and lowers estrogen levels in the blood.” Another reason fiber may work: It keeps waistlines trimmer. (Because fat tissue makes estrogen, being overweight ups the risk of breast cancer.)
Women should aim for 28 grams of fiber every day, men 38 grams. The average American gets just 15 grams. The fiber in cereals (think: oatmeal and whole-grain cereals) and fruits (particularly apples, figs, raisins) is particularly healthy for breasts.
Vitamin D is practically the Swiss Army knife of anti-cancer tools; this vitamin keeps cancerous cells from multiplying, tells tumor cells to kill themselves, and even helps produce a tumor-suppressing protein that blocks malignant cell growth in breast tumors. Yet many Americans may be vitamin-D deficient.
Getting enough vitamin D can reduce the risk of breast cancer by 30 percent, according to Harvard researchers who compared cancer development in women with the highest versus lowest vitamin D blood levels. For all these reasons and more, many experts urge all adults to supplement with at least 1,000 IU of vitamin D per day.
When it comes to cells dividing and growing properly, folic acid is essential. This B vitamin is needed to make DNA and RNA, which are the blueprints for all the body’s cells. Moreover, folic acid acts as a quality control specialist, preventing changes to DNA that may lead to cancer.
Women who don’t get enough folic acid are at higher risk for breast cancer. Earlier this year, researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center reported that women with a high folic acid intake (from a combination of diet and supplements) had a 22 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer, compared to women with a very low intake. Folic acid also counteracts alcohol’s pro-cancerous effects toward breast cancer
Some health experts believe soy can increase breast cancer risk, but conclusive research supporting this theory is lacking. Tori Hudson, ND, a naturopathic physician in Portland, Oregon, and author of Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (McGraw-Hill, 2008), feels that the concerns about soy have been greatly overstated.
In fact, a large body of research shows that eating soy from a young age and throughout life lessens the risk of breast cancer. One 2009 study found that including soy foods in the diet during teen years is associated with a 43 percent drop in premenopausal breast cancer risk and that high intakes of soy in adulthood lowered premenopausal breast cancer risk by 59 percent.
Set down that glass of chardonnay: Drinking any kind of alcohol, even red wine, ups the chance of breast cancer. Just one drink a day will increase your lifetime risk of breast cancer by 5 percent, and it goes up from there, with six daily drinks raising risk by a whopping 40 percent, says Leena Hilakivi-Clarke, PhD. In fact, alcohol is a culprit in nearly 11 percent of breast cancers, say British researchers who followed more than a million women over a 7-year period. While the research is clear on the risk of alcohol, the why behind this risk is much less clear.
The current thinking holds that alcohol throws a monkey wrench into estrogen metabolism. Since many breast tumors are fueled by this hormone, when alcohol increases estrogen in the body, it also increases breast cancer risk.
As a double whammy, alcohol saps the body of folic acid by increasing how much of this B vitamin leaves the body in urine. Folic acid plays a key role in producing new cells to replace damaged cells throughout the body, and it also guards against DNA damage that can lead to cancer. When alcohol reduces the body’s folic acid supply, this cancer watchdog is no longer on guard against breast cells that could become cancerous.
Supplementing with 400 mcg folic acid (the amount in a multi) and increasing your intake of folic acid¬–rich foods such as nuts, beans, whole grains, spinach, brussels sprouts, bananas, and oranges may help offset the increased risk of breast cancer that results from the occasional drink.
Regular breast self-exams and an annual clinical exam from your gynecologist can identify many breast problems in the early stages. If you notice any of the following symptoms in your breasts, contact your doctor right away. (Note: It’s normal to experience breast tenderness around ovulation).
* Lump, hard knot, or thickening
* Change in size or shape
* Skin dimpling or puckering
* Spontaneous nipple discharge
Source: Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Los Angeles Affiliate.