Diet and breast cancer prevention

Nutrition Team

Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer for women in the UK and Ireland. According to the Cancer Research Campaign around 38,000 women are diagnosed each year with breast cancer in the UK. That means that approximately 1 in 9 women will suffer from breast cancer at some point in their lives. A third of these women will die from the disease.

A wide variety of factors are involved in the development of breast cancer. Some are related to family history and genetics, while others are related to lifestyle and diet. While you can’t change your genetic make-up, there are many measures you can take in terms of altering your diet and lifestyle that will help protect you from breast cancer.

What Is Cancer?
The body is made up of millions of cells. New cells are constantly produced to replace cells that have become worn out or damaged. New cells are also made during growth, such as during infancy and childhood. Normally, the body regulates the growth of new cells but occasionally cells mutate and abnormal cells are produced. These abnormal cells do not function properly and if they are not destroyed by the body, they may develop and grow rapidly. This is cancer. The abnormal cells may also spread to other parts of the body and multiply there.

Diet and Breast Cancer
Clearly, diet is not the only factor that can affect a woman’s risk of breast cancer – environmental factors are also important, such as smoking or exposure to environmental carcinogens. Some cancers can be linked to certain hormones in the body. Breast cancer is one of these along with cervical cancer or prostrate cancer. The effect of diet is also more pronounced in some cancers than in breast cancer, for example, colon cancer.

Fruit and Vegetables
While there is no direct evidence as yet of a protective effect of fruit and vegetable intake on breast cancer specifically, studies have shown that high intakes of fruit and vegetables may reduce the risk of many different cancers, including lung cancer and cancers of the digestive system. This may be because fruit and vegetables contain substances called antioxidants like carotenes, lycopene or vitamin C. These act by mopping up free radicals and thus protecting cells from damage. It’s this damage to cells that may start the process of a normal cell becoming a cancer cell.

Body Weight
Being overweight has been shown to be associated with the development of breast cancer. Therefore, maintaining body weight within the normal range may reduce the risk of cancer. While there is no direct evidence that a high fat diet causes breast cancer, there is evidence that a high fat diet causes obesity and it may therefore be beneficial to reduce fat intake as a means to control body weight and by default, protect against breast cancer.

Physical Activity
Evidence regarding a reduction of breast cancer risk with increased levels of exercise is as yet uncertain – some studies show a reduction in risk while others do not. In the meantime, while physical activity can play a vital role in losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight, the best advice is to increase the amount of time and effort you put into getting active on a daily basis.

New evidence from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) has shown that increasing intake of alcohol is associated with a rise in breast cancer risk. However, this was not true for wine consumption. This is possibly due to the antioxidants present in wine.

Soya is a rich source of isoflavones which belong to a group of compounds called phyto-oestrogens. Phyto-oestrogens are similar to the female hormone, oestrodiol and compete with it in the body. Evidence from animal studies and also epidemiological studies together indicate that soyabean products may reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. In studies on rats, isoflavones have been shown to reduce tumour growth through their anti-hormonal properties and also their antioxidant properties. People living in China and Japan have higher intakes of isoflavones, as the traditional diet is higher in soyabeans, than people following a Western diet. There is also a low incidence of these cancers in the Chinese and Japanese population that may or may not be linked to dietary factors (references: Bingham et al. 1998 Brit. J. Nutr. 79, 393-406, Cassidy et al. 1994 Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 60, 333-340).

Congugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
A recent Finnish study showed that a diet composed of CLA-rich foods, like dairy products and particularly cheese, may protect against breast cancer in postmenopausal women. This supports previous work in animal studies. However the findings are preliminary and more work is required to prove the independent effects of CLA and it’s role in cancer prevention.

To sum up...
Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables
Maintain a healthy body weight
Reduce your fat intake
Get active
Limit your alcohol intake
Include soya products in your diet
Including CLA-rich foods may be beneficial

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