October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and for 31 days the nation turns its attention to the most common cancer affecting women. There will be educational tidbits, stories about survivors, fund-raising efforts for research, and a renewed focus on what can help decrease a woman’s chance of getting the diagnosis, which affects one in every eight women.
Certain factors increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer that she has no control over. Simply getting older increases a woman’s risk, as does family history and having dense breasts. But does a woman’s diet affect the risk of breast cancer?
According to breastcancer.org, diet does play a part to some degree in up to 40% of all cancers. The research over the years has supported a diet low in fat and high in plant-based foods to decrease our overall risk of cancer.
The role that diet plays in a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer specifically has not been as clear. Research has not been able to point to an association between diet and a breast cancer diagnosis. However, women who live in Asian and African countries where diets are typically plant-based and lower fat have lower breast cancer rates as compared to the US.
Recently, research looked at breast cancer rates in Puerto Rican women. The study results suggested that eating a lot of onions and garlic was associated with lower rates of breast cancer. Researchers specifically mentioned sofrito, an onion and garlic-based condiment that is used commonly.
Earlier this year, the results were published from a meta-analysis that combined the data from 32 studies which looked at how dietary patterns affected breast cancer risk. The researchers found postmenopausal women who had a “Western dietary pattern” had a possibly higher risk of developing breast cancer. The authors went on to suggest that more studies need to be done in order to confirm their findings.
Research has shown that while vegans had a lower incidence of breast cancer, it was not statistically significant.
We know that a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer are lower if she is considered to be in a healthy weight range. Women who are above their recommended weight and those who fall into the obese category have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. The reason is that estrogen is produced by fat cells. More fat cells result in higher estrogen levels. Women with high estrogen levels have higher rates of breast cancer. This is especially true after menopause.
“We know that obese women have worse outcomes from breast cancer, even when treated appropriately,” Dr. Joanne Mortimer, a breast cancer oncologist with City of Hope Cancer Hospital tells Parentology. “Weight management is important for breast cancer and of course, heart health. Women treated for breast cancer have a higher risk of dying of heart disease. Weight management, blood pressure control, exercise and management of lipids are very important.”
Data from the Women’s Health Initiative suggests a diet that decreases the amount of calories from fat is associated with fewer breast cancer recurrences. Likewise, regular exercise has also been found to affect breast cancer rates. Lower rates of cancer were found in women who exercise for at least four hours a week.
The Women’s Health Initiative study, a long-term study that involved more than 161,000 participants, has provided a wealth of information on breast cancer risk. In May of this year results from a randomized clinical trial reported a lower risk of dying from breast cancer in those women whose diet contained a high percentage of fruits, vegetables and grains and a smaller percentage of calories from fat.
While research has not provided a clear answer to the question of whether diet does affect the risk of breast cancer, there are many other good reasons to lower fat intake and increase plant-based food items.
Does Diet Affect Risk of Breast Cancer — Sources
Dr. Joanne Mortimer, breast cancer oncologist with City of Hope
CDC – Breast Cancer
National Cancer Institute
Breast Cancer Research
British Journal of Nutrition
Journal of Nutrition and Cancer