Can a Plant-Based Diet Reduce the Risk of Breast Cancer?

Breast Cancer Awareness Month may be coming to a close, but staying on top of your breast health is an all-year-round affair. In addition to getting an annual mammogram, this can include adopting certain lifestyle changes. In a PSA released this month, Alicia Silverstone promotes adopting plant-based diet, regular exercise, and limiting alcohol consumption.

Silverstone, who has been vegan since her 20s, is joined by Dr. Kristi Funk, author of the 2018 book Breasts: The Owner’s Manual, The Good Place star Ted Danson, and Jasmine Levya, director of the documentary, The Invisible Vegan.  The PSA was released by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization made up of more than 12,000 doctor members, as part of their national “Let’s Beat Breast Cancer” campaign. Watch the video below:

Breast cancer is the second-most common cancer in American women, second to skin cancer. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. It’s estimated that 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in American women this year.

Although rare, breast cancer affects men as well, particularly in older men or those with a family history of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), between five to 10 percent of breast cancer diagnoses are thought to be genetic.

Race and ethnicity can also affect your risk. White women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than Black women over 45. Mortality rates are higher for Black women of any age. Asian, Hispanic, and Native American women have a lower risk of breast cancer. Lifestyle can also play a role in breast cancer risk, such as alcohol consumption (but more on that later). Some animal studies suggest that exposure to certain chemicals (such as pesticides and fossil fuel fumes) raises the risk of breast cancer. But, this has mainly been explored in animals.

Eat a wide variety of plant-based foods. | Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Can a Plant-Based Diet Reduce the Risk of Breast Cancer?

No lifestyle can ensure that one will never get breast cancer. However, there are several lifestyle factors that can reduce the risk:

1. Eat More Plants

According to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), there is some evidence suggesting that eating non-starchy vegetables may decrease the risk of estrogen-receptor-negative (ER) breast cancer. Foods containing carotenoids, which include carrots, yams, kale, spinach, and oranges, may decrease your risk.

“Every time you lift a fork to mouth, you are making a nutritional chess move in the game called health,” Funk tells LIVEKINDLY. “I’ve spent years researching what science has to say about which antioxidant-rich foods release molecules that can scavenge free radicals, eliminate carcinogens we consume and encounter, prevent and repair DNA damage, identify and destroy harmful cells in our bodies, inhibit new blood supply required by tumors to grow (angiogenesis), stimulate the immune system, regulate hormone metabolism, and reduce inflammation.”

A 2014 study from Japan linked increased vegetable consumption with a “statistically significant” decrease in premenopausal breast cancer. So, eat your vegetables. Try to make low-fat, whole foods plant-based meals that include a wide variety of vegetables, legumes, and grains. Remember to eat fruit, too.

Funk adds that “meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs create chinks in that armor where breast cancer cells can settle and thrive; animal products increase estrogen, growth hormones (IGF-1), angiogenesis, free radicals, immune system dysfunction, and inflammation.”

However, experts acknowledge that there is no “magic bullet” diet for cancer prevention and additionally, diet is not the sole factor.

2. Exercise Regularly

“Being sedentary increases breast cancer by as much as 40 percent over those who bust a move at moderate levels for 3-4 hours a week,” says Funk.

The American Cancer Society notes that many studies in the past two decades have linked regular exercise to a reduced risk of pre and postmenopausal breast cancer. For adults, this means working out for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity weekly.

“However, even just walking briskly for a mere 11 minutes day drops breast cancer incidence by 18 percent,” Funk continues. “If sweat isn’t your thing, simply strive to move more throughout the day with a goal of 5 hours a week.”

Find a way to move your body every day in a way that you enjoy. That can be walking, yoga, lifting weights, jogging, or playing an exercise video game. Regular exercise has also been proven to reduce anxiety and depression.

3. Limit Alcohol Consumption

Several studies have linked moderate to heavy alcohol consumption to an increased risk of pre and postmenopausal breast cancer. This includes all types of alcohol, including beer and wine. As little as one drink a day can increase your risk of premenopausal breast cancer. According to that same study, approximately 4 to 10 percent of breast cancers in the U.S. (between 9,000–23,000 new invasive cases) can be attributed to alcohol consumption.

Funk explains that “alcohol weakens your immune system, increases estrogen levels (80% of breast cancers are fueled by estrogen), and interferes with your body’s ability to convert folate into its DNA-protective form, methylfolate.”

She adds that depending on your age, one drink a day can increase breast cancer risk by as much as 10 percent and two drinks can raise the risk by 20 to 30 percent.

“The American Cancer Society advises that people who choose to drink limit their intake to no more than 2 per day for men and 1 a day for women,” says Funk.

4. Maintain a Healthy Body Weight

Studies suggest that being overweight can increase the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. Weight changes throughout adulthood may also negatively influence the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer while weight loss has been linked to a reduced risk.

“In the United States, up to 50 percent of postmenopausal breast cancer deaths can be attributed to obesity,” says Funk. “Cue the good news: if you lose the weight, you’ll lose the risk!”

Funk recommends embracing a whole foods, plant-based diet and limiting alcohol consumption, cutting back on saturated fat and refined sugar, and regular exercise.

5. Get an Annual Mammogram

Again, it’s important to acknowledge that no lifestyle will completely prevent cancer. But, steps can always be taken to reduce your risk and catch breast cancer early.

“I advise women at normal risk for breast cancer to begin annual mammograms at age 40,” says Funk. Breast cancer is hard to predict, but “14 percent of all breast cancers occur between 40-49 years old, and the highest risk decade in which to get diagnosed is in your 70s.”

Those with a higher risk, such as due to an inherited gene mutation, a family history, prior abnormal breast biopsies, or those with dense breasts should consult with their doctor for a personalized plan.

“I often add breast MRI, screening breast ultrasound, and 3D mammography (i.e., tomosynthesis) for high-risk patients and begin younger than age 40,” says Funk.

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