Image Credit: tnphtc.org
By Madeline Vann, MPH | Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
A healthy diet isn’t a magic bullet against cancer, but new research suggests it may help. Two studies just released by the University of California, San Diego, and the Genesis Prevention Center at University Hospital in South Manchester, England, show that a meal plan rich in fruits and veggies and low in starchy carbohydrates may help prevent breast cancer and breast cancer recurrence.
In fact, diet may even play a greater role than weight management in breast cancer prevention. “Overweight women who exercise 150 minutes a week and eat lots of fruits and veggies have a lower risk of breast cancer than normal-weight women who are sedentary and have a low intake of fruits and veggies,” says nutritionist Mary Marian, MS, RD, CSO, a research specialist and lecturer at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson. She recommends careful shopping in the produce section, seafood department, and spice aisle to help you create an anti-cancer nutrition plan. The following foods, in particular, may offer nutrients that promote better breast health and boost your immune system.
The spice that gives curry its beautiful yellow color contains a chemical called churchmen. (Insert: also known as tumeric, an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant in the ginger family). Lab studies using churchmen supplements have shown that it could play a role in helping fight breast cancer tumors when combined with certain drug-based therapy. It also may have an anti-inflammatory effect that could protect your overall health. You’ll need supplements to get enough curcumin, but putting a veggie curry full of broccoli, onions, and garlic on your breast cancer prevention menu could help make your anti-cancer nutrition plan more fun.
Broccoli has garnered the most attention as a breast cancer prevention food. Research has shown it blocks tumor growth, explains Marian, preventing the further spread of cancer if it does occur. You can also get this anti-cancer benefit from other cruciferous veggies, including cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale — but you most likely need to eat one or more of these vegetables every day, she advises.
“Garlic seems to have an impact on cell cycling,” explains Marian. That’s the process by which a normal, healthy cell might become cancerous. Credit for regulating this goes to the component of garlic called allyl sulfide. Allyl sulfides are found throughout the onion family, so adding garlic or onions to your recipes on a regular basis may aid in breast cancer prevention. Keep in mind, though, that anti-cancer nutrition studies have largely been done on garlic extract supplements rather than on garlic used for cooking. Also, people on blood thinners and certain other medications should talk with their doctor before taking garlic supplements to avoid possible drug interactions.
An apple a day may keep breast cancer away — but there’s a catch. If you normally peel your apple and toss away the colorful wrapping, you’re also tossing away a rich source of antioxidants, fiber, and other compounds needed for anti-cancer nutrition. Lab studies show that apple peel can actually fight the spread of cancer cells. The good news is that you don’t need exotic varieties — this research came from readily available Gala apples, so add them to your breast cancer prevention shopping list.
Research into the role of pomegranates is in its early stages, but Marian says a cell culture study suggests that the fruit contains a compound that might help fight cancer’s growth — especially estrogen-dependent cancers. Pomegranates make a delicious and healthy addition to any breast cancer management plan or breast cancer prevention diet, in either fruit or juice form. Adding them to your grocery list may benefit others in your family, too — they also help fight heart disease and prostate cancer.
Get out your nut cracker! Walnuts contain many helpful nutrients and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which help your body fight inflammation. Research also suggests that walnuts may actually slow the growth of breast cancer tumors, so this tasty nut could play a role in breast cancer management even after diagnosis.
Other great sources of omega-3 fatty acids include certain fish and fish oil. “You really want to take fish oils on a daily basis,” Marian recommends. Fish is also a smart lean protein source and a great addition to a breast cancer prevention plan, because anti-cancer nutrition recommendations include limiting your intake of red meat and processed meats, such as bacon and packaged deli meats. Opt for salmon, mackerel, sea bass, and tuna as breast cancer diet choices instead.
Shopping for healthy fats will inevitably lead you to flaxseed oil, but this is an instance where your best anti-cancer nutrition choice is the seed itself, ground into a flour-like dust. “When you use milled flaxseed, it has a component called lignans,” explains Marian. Lignans may actually decrease cancer growth, making it perfect for a breast cancer management diet. You can buy ground flaxseed or grind the seeds yourself using a coffee grinder. Then sprinkle the flaxseed on salads.
Soy has received mixed reviews regarding adult breast cancer prevention, but Marian says mothers may be interested to know that when preteen girls eat two servings of soybean products a day, they reap anti-cancer nutrition benefits later in life. On the other hand, she recommends against adult women taking soy or isoflavone supplements as part of a breast cancer diet — these products contain estrogen-like compounds, which could prove to be too much of a good thing.
When it comes to breast cancer prevention, think about eating more carrots, cantaloupe, and sweet potatoes — foods rich in the form of vitamin A known as carotenoids. Women who have higher levels of carotenoids in their bloodstream seem to be at lower risk for breast cancer, says Marian. Orange vegetables and fruits are most often held up as sources of this powerful compound for breast cancer prevention, but “there are 600 different carotenoids,” she says. If you want to amp up the carotenoids in your breast cancer diet, just make sure you get lots of orange, red, yellow, and even dark green foods.
Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries add color, variety, and flavor to your anti-cancer nutrition plan. They are also power-packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can aid in breast cancer prevention, so make them part of your breast cancer diet. Recent research suggests that blueberries, in particular, play a role in breast cancer management by enhancing the effect of the often-prescribed drug tamoxifen in fighting breast cancer cells.
Green tea and white tea both contain catechins, extracts that seem to show some benefit in breast cancer prevention. Research suggests that green tea is particularly effective at protecting your cells against environmental exposures that might increase the risk for cancer. However, says Marian, you might have to drink a lot of tea — four or more cups a day — to achieve this effect.
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