A Holistic Nutritionist’s Top 10 Tips for Lowering your Breast Cancer Risk
Did you know that only 5-10% of breast cancers are genetically based (i.e. passed down from our parents)? The rest is influenced by our environment and lifestyle factors. That includes things like diet, air quality, water quality, stress, exercise, exposure to smoking and alcohol, and much more. So basically, what we put on the end of our forks (and in our glasses) can either feed disease or fight it. Although it has its challenges, what we put on the end of that fork is something we have complete control over. It’s a decision we make at least 3 times per day. Bagel or oatmeal? Sandwich or salad? Fish or steak?
Food is the building block for every cell in our bodies. We need it for energy, thought, nerve and muscle function, immune support…we need it to simply exist. According to Dr. Quillin, former vice president of nutrition for Cancer Treatment Centers of America, optimal nutrition and lifestyle can reduce the risks of developing cancer by 90%.
I’m sure you all have heard the famous saying from Hippocrates, “Let Food be thy Medicine and Medicine thy Food,” but he lived during a time when there wasn’t Genetically Modified, Low Fat, Low Calorie, Hormone-injected, or Processed “foods” so it was easier to choose foods to support your health. You could go out onto your farm, a neighbor’s farm, or local grocer and you wouldn’t have to worry about reading labels or sources. It was picked fresh, it was local, it was seasonal. And guess what? It was organic before it was called organic! Now, as a consumer, you have to be diligent about the food choices you’re making. Let me make it a little easier for you by sharing my top 10 nutrition tips for breast cancer prevention:
Remove the moo (and cluck and oink) from your plate.
Red and processed meats, specifically, are linked to an increased breast cancer risk[2,3] whereas lowering intake of red meat reduces risk. Studies have shown that beef and pork may even lead to DNA damage. Animal meat contains exogenous hormones, like estrogen, which can be a growth factor for breast cancer. And if the meat’s not organic, it also contains a lovely cocktail of additional growth hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides, all things we want to avoid.
Along with these hormones, animal proteins are usually higher in saturated fats as well. Higher fat intake from animal sources is associated with higher blood cholesterol, along with higher female hormone levels, which in turn are associated with more breast cancer and an earlier age of menarche[6 (p. 76)].
Now how about a tall glass of ice-cold milk? Dump that out too.
Dairy milk is not a necessary part of our diets, like advertised. In fact, it’s harmful. The poor cows that produce that milk are basically pregnant their whole lives and the milk that is produced is full of exogenous hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which can lead to the growth of hormone-sensitive cancers. Dairy intake has also been associated with an increased concentration of IGF-1, a growth factor for many cancers. And to top it off, casein, a protein found in dairy, has been linked to increased breast cancer risk[6 (p. 56)]. Just like human milk, cow’s milk is meant to help the baby calf grow. What did we think was going to happen if we consumed those hormones over time? Ditch the cow’s milk and opt for almond, hemp, oat, cashew, flax, or any other plant-based mylk you prefer.
Eat whole, real foods.
This means foods that are as close to as how they’re found in nature, i.e. fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, grains. You’ll likely find these on the perimeter of your grocery store or at your local farmer’s market. This is not to say that you will never eat packaged foods, just remember to read your labels! If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, or there’s a bunch of numbers and colors, then put it back on the shelf.
Processed food leads to inflammation in the body, a precursor to many of our common diseases, including breast cancer, and can cause DNA damage due to free radicals. Oh and those crazy chemicals that we can’t pronounce on the box? Yeah, our bodies don’t know how to process them so they get stored in fat as a way to protect ourselves or our liver gets overloaded with them. They can disrupt or hormone function too. Remember if you can pronounce it (without an engineering or chemistry degree) then you can eat it.
Eat the rainbow, and a lot of it!
Fill your plate with all the colors! Each color represents a different phytochemical, nutrient, mineral, antioxidant that your body needs to fight off disease and illness. It’s nature’s way of saying “pick me! Pick me!” Maybe you don’t get all the colors on one plate but try to vary it throughout the day and week. Not a fan of one of the colors? Green is a common culprit here. Add it to a smoothie! You can never really eat too many vegetables or fruit, in fact studies show that the more vegetables you eat, the risk for developing breast cancer lessens accordingly. I suggest filling your plate with 75% of these yummy plants at lunch and dinner, bonus if you’re able to get some at breakfast too.
No refined sugar!
We’re talking about the white stuff here. Let’s throw in the artificial stuff, too. Anything that ends in -ose on a label is a sugar (fructose is OK). Sugar leads to inflammation, increased blood sugar, obesity, high cholesterol, fatty liver, all risk factors for cancer. Need I say more?
The stinky vegetables are the best.
The stinkier the better. I’m talking your cruciferous vegetables: kale, bok choy, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts and your alliums: garlic, onion, leeks, shallots. Both of these categories contain phytochemicals and antioxidants that have specifically been shown to help prevent and fight breast cancer. Sulforaphane and quercetin are the all-stars here. Stink up your kitchen and your breath with these potent cancer fighters.
Have fun with spices and herbs!
Pretty much every spice in your cabinet and in your garden has powerful antioxidants and phytonutrients that help prevent cancer and boost your immune system. Some of my faves are oregano, thyme, ginger, cumin, and turmeric. You can never use too much. Go crazy with them when you’re cooking, discover new flavors, and help prevent cancer at the same time.
Have your green tea and drink it too.
Catechins, specifically epigallocatechin gallate, EGCG for short, from green tea have been shown to protect DNA from damage, block cancer cell signaling, prevent cancer cells from getting the blood supply they need to grow, and induce apoptosis, automatic cell death, of cancer cells. One of my favorite ways to enjoy green tea and get these benefits is by making a matcha latte with almond milk for an afternoon pick me up. Look for organic, ceremonial grade matcha for this and drink 1-2 cups per day.
Soy isn’t our enemy!
People are often afraid of the “estrogens” found in soy, but fear not. Soy is part of a category of foods known as phytoestrogens. Also in this category are beans and legumes, flaxseeds, yams, red raspberry leaf, resveratrol in red wine, and red clover. You only hear soy getting the bad rap, though, right? Let’s break it down.
Phyto simply means plant. These foods don’t actually contain estrogen, but they help regulate estrogen in the body and can act like estrogen (in a good way). These phytoestrogens or isoflavones are actually selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), meaning they bind to specific estrogen sites (beta) in the body, that result in anti-growth properties. The alpha site is the one that is activated in estrogen receptor positive breast cancer. Also, there are 18 different types of estrogen in our bodies. Some estrogen is cancer promoting and some is cancer protective. Phytoestrogens actually help regulate the type of estrogens being produced and shift the production of cancer promoting estrogen to the cancer protective or inactive type.
It has been shown in studies that consumption during childhood and adolescence is cancer preventative. Eating soy has also been shown to help reduce the risk of recurrence in postmenopausal women.
What I’m referring to are organic, whole forms of soy like tofu, tempeh, edamame, and miso, not soy protein powders, soy lecithin, soy “meat,” and other processed soy products. Another reason why soy gets a bad rap is because it’s one of the largest GMO crops here in the US, so it’s essential to buy organic soy, which is available at most grocery stores. One to two servings a day of phytoestrogens can provide you with many of the protective benefits discussed here.
Less is more.
There have been multiple studies on reduced caloric intake and its positive impact on cancer prevention. I am not one to advocate for calorie counting because I don’t think that’s sustainable or a healthy way to look at food. What I do suggest is eating smaller portions more often as a way to help control intake. Instead of using our regular sized dinner plates, use a side plate or small bowl for your meals. If you’re still hungry, then get a second helping, focusing on the veggies. Most of us overeat or eat really fast and don’t realize how much we’re actually eating. This makes it more of a conscious thing, plus it gives our body time to digest what we’re actually eating and use what we’re putting in. If we’re consistently eating too much over time, that can lead to obesity, high blood sugar, etc., etc.
I hope you found these top 10 tips helpful. If a lot of these are new to you, start with 1 and slowly start incorporating the others. You’ve got this and your boobies will definitely thank you!
Bethany Swanquist is a board-certified holistic nutritionist, specializing in breast cancer, with a master’s degree in nutrition and health education. She is the founder and owner of Wildflower Wellness, Inc. a nutrition consulting company. Her mom lost her battle with breast cancer when she was 9 years old, so she has made it her mission to help as many women as possible prevent and help fight this disease. She truly believes that women can be in charge of their own journey and she wants to provide them with as much information as she can on natural therapies like nutrition, aromatherapy, and much more to help them make the choices that are right for them. She does virtual one on one sessions and has a 6-week group program called Breast Cancer Education and Empowerment beginning September 9, 2019 that incorporates nutrition, the mind-body connection, essential oils, and other natural therapies. You can reach Bethany at email@example.com.
6 Campbell, PhD, T.C., Campbell II, MD, T.M., (2016) The China Study: Revised and Expanded Edition. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.