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October 28th, 2011
04:21 PM ET

Does diet really matter in breast cancer?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Asked by Katherine in California

Does diet really make a difference when it comes to breast cancer?

Expert answer

Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, this is the perfect time to answer this question.

And the answer is a resounding yes. To get you the best possible information, I turned to registered dietitians Sally Scroggs, MS,RD,LD, and Clare McKinley, RD,LD, at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, one of the leading cancer hospitals in the world. They explained that breast cancer risk could be decreased by up to 38% through lifestyle factors including maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet. In fact, less than 10% of breast cancer appears to have a genetic basis.

For prevention of breast cancer, limiting alcohol to one drink a day (5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of spirits) is one of the most important things that you can do. In addition, a plant-based diet loaded with at least two cups a day of a variety of produce is beneficial.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, "no single food or food component can protect you against cancer by itself. But scientists believe that the combination of foods in a predominantly plant-based diet may. There is evidence that the minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals in plant foods could interact in ways that boost their individual anti-cancer effects. This concept of interaction, where 1 + 1 = 3, is called synergy."

Some of their top picks for cancer prevention include beans, berries, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts), dark leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, chard, romaine, mustard greens), flaxseed, garlic, grapes/grape juice, green tea, soy, tomatoes and whole grains. A recent study in mice suggests that walnuts may also play a role in breast cancer prevention, but these findings need to be confirmed in humans.

There is also a growing body of research suggesting that curcumin, one of the active components of curry, may play a role in both the treatment and prevention of various types of cancer including breast cancer.

Being overweight is strongly associated with the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. Adult weight gain of 22-44 pounds is associated with a 50% greater risk and a weight gain above 45 pounds is associated with an 87% increased risk.

Excess belly fat seems to be particularly harmful, most likely because of its effects on inflammation and its association with elevated insulin levels, so if you tend to be more "apple shaped" and carry extra weight in your belly, it is especially important to lose weight, exercise regularly, and limit refined grains, sugar sweetened beverages, and added sugar in your diet.

When it comes to breast cancer survivors, a healthy lifestyle is just as important, if not more so. Many women are concerned about soy consumption, which I've written about before. Sally and Clare agree that up to three servings per day is safe, but they emphasize that soy should come from whole foods like soy milk, edamame and tofu, and that supplements like smoothies, bars and soy fortified cereals should be limited.

Finally, during treatment, diet is very important to maintain health and optimize energy levels, but before taking any supplements, it is best to consult with a registered dietitian, preferably one that has experience with cancer treatment, because some supplements may actually interfere with chemotherapy or radiation.

In general, the emphasis should be on whole foods rich in anti-oxidants. Vitamin C may need to be supplemented in some cases if not enough is consumed in the diet. To find a registered dietitian, go to the American Dietetic Association website.

I hope you are encouraged by the fact that you can make a difference in your risk of breast cancer through lifestyle. Here a few breast cancer fighting recipes from M.D. Anderson to get you started in the right direction.

Ask our health experts a question


soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. hugomilligan

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    October 29, 2011 at 05:38 | Report abuse | Reply
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  2. D Wilson

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    November 7, 2011 at 10:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MARY ELEANOR

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      March 8, 2014 at 18:43 | Report abuse |
  3. serdich

    .. also wearing a particular brand of shoes can decrease your risk of breast cancer..for example wearing Prada can lower your risk with up to 24%, on the other side sneakers show just a moderate decrease of 5-10%.

    January 11, 2012 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. actualscientist

    "less than 10% of breast cancer appears to have a genetic basis."– completely wrong, 100% of cancer has a genetic basis, please revise your article. Diet however is very important, as well as environment, pollution etc. If you get a mutation in an important protein, you are likely to get cancer if your immune system doesn't clear it.

    January 11, 2012 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ruthann Leonard

      I have estrogen p breast cancer it Was caught very early they did a lump rediitation and put me on arimadex my mom passed away from the same cancer she was stage4 when they found it her dr said that she had it for a very long time thank you

      February 28, 2013 at 12:29 | Report abuse |
    • Jamie

      True, cancer is genetic, BUT many studies (and arguably the largest in THE CHINA STUDY) suggest that cancer cells can be turn off and on by diet and the lifestyle led by the client. If my dad died of prostate cancer than I have a fire to control within my body. You can either put water on the fire (plant foods) or gasoline to fuel the fire (animal products). It's hard to disperse oxygen throughout your body when you consume too many animal products, and we all know that cancer cells have a hard time growing where there is adequate amounts of oxygen.

      June 12, 2013 at 09:37 | Report abuse |
  5. Josh

    Again terrible advice, whole grains? Members of the breast cancer community came out recently to state that moderate low-carbohydrate diet can help reduce chance of recurring breast cancer. This is based off of the fact increased insulin and blood glucose are an essential element of contracting breast cancer. Cancer feeds off of glucose.

    I'm not sure why they didn't advocate for full low-carbohydrate diet, as it is extremely healthy and prevents not only cancer but coronary disease, type II diabetes and a number of other health issues.

    February 24, 2012 at 16:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jamie

      I'm sorry, Josh, but for viewers benefits I'm calling this one out. You could not be any more wrong. Make sure the study that they published wasn't paid for by the meat/dairy industries. They promote low-carb to drive business, but look at any countries who have very little records of any of the disease you mentioned. They all eat high carb, plant-based foods. Our anatomy is made for plants, not animals. Look at the obesity rates in China (below 5%). People blame it on exercise, but that is another conversation that I hope you reply back to. I am a graduate of Kinesiology, so of course I am pro exercise, but exercise is not the problem. It is the diet. America already eats low carb.

      June 12, 2013 at 09:43 | Report abuse |
    • Jamie

      Type II is caused by intramyocellular lipids in the muscles. The larger those adipose cells grow from becoming overweight and obese, the harder it is for insulin to deliver sugar to the muscles (sugar is the fuel your muscles run on, just like gasoline to a civic). Therefore, insulin resistance becomes the case when the sugar gets backed up in your blood. Cut the animals out of your diet and type II goes away. How do you explain that. Most doctors just put you on a pill for the rest of your life and scare you away from sugar. Nice strategy for keeping you sick.

      June 12, 2013 at 09:46 | Report abuse |
    • Doctor Vedic

      Josh,

      Eating too many animal foods will increase your cancer growth factors. Low complex carb, high animal protein diets are the worst things people hoping to avoid cancer should eat.

      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/caloric-restriction-vs-animal-protein-restriction/

      May 13, 2014 at 14:38 | Report abuse |
  6. Karen

    I have many health issues. Had a breast removed, on coumadin for aterial Fib., had cancer of the vulva, I am in need of a diet to lose 60 pounds. I am also gluten intolerant. I tried a nuturientast but she wanted me to drink a liquid powder once a day (which is fine with me) however, reading the label on the package shows gluten. She had no nice words for me when I told her I could not drink the liquid. I need help, please. I walk a mile a day for exercise but need help with the diet.

    March 16, 2012 at 22:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Low Carb Convert

      Hey Karen.
      I read you post on CNN looking for a good diet to lose weight and deals with gluten intolerance. Also, the breast cancer issues are very much linked to blood glucose and insulin levels in your blood. Try a paleo or primal lifestyle. They naturally eliminate grains and other forms of gluten in your diet, while keeping your blood sugar low to stave off cancer forever.

      July 24, 2012 at 16:40 | Report abuse |
    • Jamie

      Karen, everyone finds results in a plant-based diet. There is no money in it so you don't have people like the "low carb c***it" advertising, but it is what your body is suppose to do. Low carb puts your body into a state of Ketosis, which makes you sick and dehydrated. It forces you to lose your water weight and fools people to thinking they are losing weight, and they eventually gain back the weight bc their metabolism has been slowed so much by starvation to the muscles. China is almost 100% lean and they eat nothing but vegetables and rice (almost 80-90% carbs), which are all gluten free. Stay away from Wheat products and you will be fine. Keep your calories UP and you will feel excellent the rest of your life. Never restrict your calories when you are eating the foods your body metabolizes with how nature intended.

      June 12, 2013 at 09:52 | Report abuse |
  7. doctorshealthpress

    hi, that' was a good suggestion for me.. really i enjoyed with this currently i an getting a health related information from http://www.doctorshealthpress/
    you can also read information about breast cancer by that way....thank's ..

    April 5, 2012 at 08:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. corruption

    watch Bad Blood: A cautionary Tale. Where is the political will to make pharma put the actual humans above market share?

    April 23, 2012 at 10:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. BA

    To fight cancer you need to take care of yourself as a whole system, according to Natural standard Yoga, therapy and meditation have been proven to help with the psychology part of breast cancer. Treating your soul along with medication and healthy diet is your best bet to beat cancer

    June 14, 2012 at 17:13 | Report abuse | Reply
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    June 19, 2012 at 11:52 | Report abuse | Reply
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    November 2, 2012 at 23:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Thomas

    I am pleased that the article identified a plant-based diet as benificial, but it focused on what substances in vegetables may be protective and not what is dangerous in milk and meat. There is research which indicates that animal protien promotes the growth of cancer. The article could have been improved if that were addressed.

    January 31, 2013 at 17:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jamie

      Thank you, Thomas. It gives me hope that their are people out there voicing this. There is no money or greedy motive to advertise plant-based diet, so no one seems to enough, but it is the obvious cure to almost all problems in the world, let alone America. This only means the opposite of plant-based (animal-based) is the culprit. The China Study needs to be taught in public schools, but that will never happen with the control that the meat/dairy industries have on the government education.

      June 12, 2013 at 09:57 | Report abuse |
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  14. Chris Green

    I have searched CNN for news of the world wide march against Monsanto that happened May 25th, not a mention in sight. Big agro has a monopoly on the majority of our food production and diet. Why are we not holding them accountable for all the damage they are causing in our health and environment? Lets look at the real causes of our health issues. GMOs, pesticides and the monopoly of crops. We have to be vigilant in our search for the truth and holding these monopolies accountable.

    May 26, 2013 at 16:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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    August 22, 2013 at 11:06 | Report abuse | Reply
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  17. Cecily

    My doctor says that vitamins should be taken with an oil or they will not be absorbed. What is your take on this theory?

    September 15, 2013 at 08:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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  26. Timmy Suckle

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    But us big wigs at insurance companies, hospitals, and pharmacy companies don’t ever need to worry about health care no matter what it costs. We get our health care paid for one way or another by you little people. And we get the little people that work at our companies to contribute to our PACs. And us big wigs say it’s to protect the little peoples’ jobs. But in reality it would be in the little peoples’ best interest to NOT contribute to the PAC. Again, little people are so easily fooled. I won’t ever have to worry about losing my job with so many little people being brain washed by the Medical Cartels’ PAC money. Not only that, the Medical Cartels’ PAC money is used to elect so many republicans that will never allow a single payer system. Republicans have always fought against any meaningful health care reform. But that’s what our Medical Cartels’ PACs pay them for. Politicians can be bought so easily.
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    April 16, 2014 at 16:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. GOP Prayer

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    April 16, 2014 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Joy Dantine

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    July 19, 2014 at 18:36 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.