Better breast cancer outcomes could begin with adopting a primarily plant-based diet.
Editor’s note: This article has been reviewed for accuracy from an earlier version posted in October 2021.
Undergoing cancer treatment can take an inevitable toll on someone, physically and mentally. What some people are unaware of is that it can often impact energy levels and appetites. This is where nutrition plays a key role in one’s treatment path and overall well-being.
“One-on-one nutrition counseling may not be necessary for all patients, but it can be incredibly beneficial in terms of symptom management, risk reduction and education on how to fully nourish oneself,” says registered dietitian Sara Spinner.
Spinner, who sees patients for primary care and with Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, explains nutrition counseling often gives many cancer patients a much-needed means of control. “They can’t control what their cancer does, but they can control what they put into their bodies. It puts the power back in their hands,” she says.
“It’s typically a very comprehensive health approach, in comparison to other cancers that can result in nausea, significant dips in energy and other symptoms,” Spinner adds.
What foods should you limit?
It’s important to be mindful and limit certain types of foods, specifically those high in saturated fats and trans fats (unhealthy fats), sodium and added sugars, says Sara. These include red meats, fried foods, cured foods, pickled foods, packaged snack foods and foods with a lot of butter or whole-fat dairy.
“Unhealthy fats can raise cholesterol levels, cause inflammation, impact cardiovascular health, and, in general, make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight,” says Spinner. Dietary fats – or unsaturated fats – which are found in many plant foods, are helpful.
Myth #1: Sugar feeds cancer. “Trying to cut out sugar will not prevent cancer or starve it, but it can deprive you of key nutrients,” says Spinner. “Every cell in the body actually depends on sugar for energy, and every carbohydrate you consume converts to sugar, or glucose, in the body.”
A high intake of added sugars, found in desserts, sweetened beverages and candy, are associated with weight gain, and being overweight is linked to an increased breast cancer risk, explains Spinner. Evidence supports that maintaining a healthy weight can also reduce the risk for cancer recurrence.
(Editor’s Note: You can read more about how weight impacts inflammation and cancer risk, here.)
What foods should you eat more of?
The National Cancer Institute and the American Institute for Cancer Research recommend adding more plant foods into your diet for better breast cancer outcomes. This doesn’t mean you have to follow a strict plant-based diet, Spinner explains, however, it is beneficial to make more plant-forward choices and eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and legumes. Around eight to 10 servings a day is suggested.
“When you look at your plate, roughly two-thirds should be comprised of plant-based products,” continues Spinner. “The other third is where your animal protein sources come in. It’s cutting back on those significantly in comparison to the typical American’s diet.”
These foods don’t have to be organic, adds Spinner. Non-organic options carry the same nutrients, and there’s no proven link between the consumption of non-organic foods and an increased risk of breast cancer. If you’re concerned about consuming added pesticides and hormones, you can still thoroughly rinse your produce.
Myth #2: Soy increases breast cancer risk. “This is a common concern in a lot of women, but it stems from the effects of taking an excess of soy-based supplements, such as pills and powders – which is never wise without guidance from a healthcare provider,” Spinner explains.
Whole foods that contain soy, such as edamame, miso, tofu and soybeans, are full of fiber and calcium, and when eaten regularly, are shown to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
Why does it work?
“Plant-based foods are chock-full of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and fiber—all of which strengthen the immune system, reduce inflammation and even prevent DNA damage,” explains Sara.
Additionally, there’s emerging research into the value of healthy, polyunsaturated fats, which can be found in many of these plant-based foods and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Healthy fats don’t cause inflammation in the body, and some experts suspect that they may provide potential protective factors against cancer – though this is not yet proven, adds Sara.
How can you do it
It’s not about saying “no.” It’s about incorporating a variety of wholesome foods into our everyday diet, adds Spinner. This doesn’t just mean during cancer treatment. Breast cancer patients should try to stick to a similar diet for the rest of their lives to help keep their risk low.
Remember, it’s not about finding a single food or supplement to act as a “magic bullet” against your cancer, says Spinner. “It’s about the big picture. Stay physically active, find healthy coping mechanisms to manage your stress and take care of yourself as much as possible.”
For more information on cancer prevention and healthy recipe ideas, visit:
[Main photo credit: Maria Korneeva/Moment/Getty Images]