On Your Health

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Integrative Medicine: Breast Cancer Risk and Nutrition

Hi, it's Juli. As I’ve written before, nutrition plays an important role in healing the mind, body and spirit. It’s a key piece of what we call “Integrative Medicine.” This food and nutrition component shares the philosophy of all Integrative Medicine therapy, by again focusing on the whole person. It’s not just about eating the recommended number of fruits and veggies each day, or counting calories, or losing weight.

I often get asked if there are foods that will help lower the risk of cancer. Most often, women ask about breast cancer. Here is what I tell them.

What can I eat to help lower my risk of breast cancer?

There is no single thing a person can do, take, or eat to completely eliminate the risk of breast cancer. However, we do know that a person’s overall dietary pattern can have a positive impact on the risk of developing cancer.

Most important: you should eat a "whole foods" diet that is mostly plant-based. Whole food means food that is as close to its natural form as possible. Easy examples include apples, almonds and broccoli that are eaten raw, or minimally processed before they are eaten. This meaning differs from “whole wheat bread,” which is still made from the highly processed powdered form of wheat: flour.

A plant-based diet is one where nutrient-rich plant foods make up the foundation, and animal products are used sparingly, if at all. A good guide is the Anti-inflammatory Food Pyramid by Dr. Andrew Weil.

Choose from across the spectrum of color. Vegetables and fruits have a wide variety of phytochemicals, which are naturally occurring chemicals with a diverse array of actions on the body. Eating a rainbow of colorful foods every day ensures you are getting many of these powerful chemicals, which we know work together in the body.

Should I be using supplements?

Using supplemental forms of one or two of these compounds has not been shown to be an effective means to achieve health goals in general. There could be situations when supplements are necessary; this is something you should talk about with your doctor.

Are there any specific foods to emphasize?
  • Fish and fish oil are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which studies have suggested can lower a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Flax seeds contain omega-3 fatty acids as well as lignan, a chemical compound that has also been shown to reduce breast cancer risk.
  • Olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fat.
  • Whole soy foods. Studies have shown countries with high soy consumption have lower rates of breast cancer. Further research links this protective benefit to isoflavones, which are one of the phytoestrogens found in soy.
  • Broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and bok choy are part of the cruciferous vegetable family and are highly recommended for breast cancer prevention. They contain the phytochemicals sulforaphane, flavones and indole-3-carbinol (I-3-C), which have been shown to affect estrogen levels and thus breast cancer risk.
  • Other foods to enjoy liberally: onions, garlic, mushrooms, strawberries, raspberries, spinach, chard, asparagus, and curry and mustard, which both contain tumeric, the yellow-colored rhizome that's a powerful anti-inflammatory agent.
Is there anything I should avoid to help reduce my risk of breast cancer?
  • Avoid trans fats, processed meats and charred or smoked foods.
  • Limit alcohol. While one drink a day has been advertised as a safe (or even possibly beneficial) amount for women, alcohol has been linked to increased breast cancer risk. The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer. The general recommendation — based on research on the effect of alcohol on breast cancer risk — is to limit yourself to less than one drink per day, as even small amounts increase risk.

Juli Johnson works at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute, where she is an Integrative Medicine practitioner. Juli is an advanced practice nurse who has been with INTEGRIS since 2000. In 2014, she graduated from the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine program at the University Of Arizona College of Medicine, where she studied under the Integrative Medicine pioneer Andrew Weil, M.D.