Some of the most common online searches on the topic of breast cancer ask the search engine gods to tell us which foods might help us beat the disease: Is it better to eat high fiber? Low fat? No sugar? More fish?
And the answers, if you do a quick skim down the first page of search results, can be misleading. One major news outlet says it’s all about the fat, another says it’s the fiber, while another says to forget all about specific foods and just take more supplements.
Let’s dig a little deeper and uncover what the latest science says about breast cancer and your diet, as well as some actionable tips that you can start using today in your quest to eradicate breast cancer, or really, any kind of cancer.
Last year major news outlets published headlines that read, “Low Fat Diets Reduce Risk of Death from Breast Cancer!”
The headlines were true enough, but there’s more to the story.
20-year study points to a
low-fat diet as key to fighting breast cancer
The news organizations were reporting on a massive study funded by the Women’s Health Initiative that started back in 1993 and included 20,000 women aged 50 to 79.
For eight years, researchers coached these women on changing their diet, and most of the advice centered on reducing their total fat intake. The women also ate more fruit, vegetables, and grains. As for the control group, roughly 30,000 women were included in the study who simply followed their normal diet. For the next 20 years, researchers tracked the women’s health status.
During that time, of course, some women from both groups were diagnosed with breast cancer. However, those in the low-fat diet group had a 21 percent lower risk of dying from the disease. Not only is that a significant finding, but it’s the first major intervention study about breast cancer where incidence of death was reduced.
So, it follows that a low-fat diet must have been the key… right?
Not quite. First of all, this study was launched in the 1990s when the trend of low-fat and fat-free eating was taking over everything. (Remember SnackWell’s cookies? A fat-free cookie in a variety of flavors was a boon for the food-loving Western world!)
Since that time, a lot more research has gone into what fats are and what role they play in the body. Now we know there are good fats and bad fats. After all, an avocado and a big bowl of potato chips have the same amount of fat… but one is so beneficial you could call it a medicine and the other is a tasty poison.
These days, we also have new insight into the role of sugar and refined carbohydrates, which probably do more damage to your body than high levels of fat.
There’s another complication of the study as well.
Study participants made
overall healthier dietary choices
The low-fat diet participants also ate more fruits, vegetables, and grains, so they consumed a lot more fiber and micronutrients. Is that what made the difference? Perhaps it wasn’t a case of eating less fat, but of eating more of other things.
On top of this, the women in the low-fat study group lost an average of three pounds, and given what we know about the link between obesity and cancer, weight loss may have also been a factor in the better outcome.
The news emerging from this study isn’t so much that limiting fat had a major benefit of overcoming breast cancer, as much as it is about the importance of changing your diet.
So, the next question is… what’s the best way to change your diet if you want to prevent or overcome breast cancer? Here’s what we know so far.
Fiber is a cancer-fighter
Just this spring, researchers looked at data from 20 different studies about breast cancer incidence and how it relates to fiber consumption. What they found is that those with the highest fiber consumption enjoyed an eight percent reduced risk of breast cancer. They published their analysis in the journal Cancer.
But not all fiber is created equal.
Soluble fiber, which is what you’ll find in nuts, beans, peas, lentils, and oatmeal, was the only type of fiber with a statistically significant connection to reducing breast cancer incidence. Insoluble fiber, which you’ll find in whole grains, also appeared to reduce risk, but the reduction was too slight to be significant.
This isn’t to say that not having fiber in your diet will cause or encourage breast cancer – that’s not what these studies were looking at, and they don’t address causation.
But because some breast cancers are related to the patient’s genetic make-up, being able to control the amount of soluble fiber in your diet so you can better reduce your risk of breast cancer is a big deal. The benefit of an eight or ten percent reduction in risk is far greater if you’re starting out with a risk that’s two or three times higher than it is for people who don’t have “bad genes.”
The basics win again
The real message here is to not be a victim of health fads.
Trends in eating and fitness will come and go. But the lifestyle choices that have never changed in their effectiveness against preventing and even treating cancer are the value of eating a plant-based diet and taking care of your body through regular movement and rest – i.e., exercise and sleep.
If you haven’t started eating a plant-based diet, there’s never been a better time.
Start eating a diet that contains fewer meat and dairy products and one that’s heavy on fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, and grains, plus healthy fats, like those found in avocados, nuts and coconut oil.
You’ll not only help prevent or treat breast cancer, you’ll most likely see an increase in your energy level, experience more balanced blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and lose excess weight.
- “Calories, Carbs, Fat, Fiber: Unraveling The Links Between Breast Cancer And Diet.” By Allison Aubrey for NPR, 18 May 2019.https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/05/18/724309081/calories-carbs-fat-fiber-unraveling-the-links-between-breast-cancer-and-diet
- “Fiber consumption and breast cancer incidence: A systematic review and meta‐analysis of prospective studies.” By Maryam S. Farvid, et al. Cancer, Volume126, Issue13, July 1, 2020, Pages 3061-3075.https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncr.32816
- “High-Fiber Foods Linked to Lower Breast Cancer Risk.” By Nicholas Bakalar for The New York Times, 6 April 2020.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/well/eat/high-fiber-foods-linked-to-lower-breast-cancer-risk.html