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Breast cancer, like all cancers, is an umbrella term. It’s one disease with many distinct types. The word cancer, comes from the Greek word for crab, a reflection of what physicians saw within ailing bodies, a locus of abnormal cells, and a crab-like spread through organs near and far. It’s estimated that more than 3-million women live with breast cancer today, and 12% more will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime, (1). According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer is “the second most common cancer among U.S. women” (2).

What we call cancer results when an immune system fails to do its job and allows abnormal cells to survive, replicate, and “establish a beachhead” in the body (3). Abnormal cells develop a support network that allows them to feed themselves, and these cells produce chemicals that promote their own existence (3). Our health isn’t 100% within our control. There’s our genetics, heredity, environmental exposures, and just getting older, that can increase our individual risk (4). Evidence shows that cancers are also random, appearing indiscriminately regardless of lifestyle or apparent risk (5).

With so much owing to chance, what can we do in terms of prevention? How do we increase our odds of living long, healthy, and cancer-free lives?

With colorectal cancer and lung cancer, actionable links add up. For the former, eat more fiber and less meat; for the latter, don’t smoke. With breast cancer, modifiable elements are less obvious. Walter Willet, PhD, of the Harvard School of Public Health, says connections between diet and breast cancer may be less important than obesity and “positive energy balance” (6). Research looking at breast cancer risks may be quick to declare the limits of healthy habits (avoid alcohol, stop smoking, stress less, sleep more), but, when we dig deeper, there’s quite a lot in our purview.

When I think about those factors (weight, energy, stress, sleep), my mind goes to diet. There’s an assumption in Willet’s statement that’s part of an old paradigm. The notion that how much you eat (compared to how much you move) matters more than what you eat. But there’s plenty of evidence that the quality of our diets is a large part of the problem. Just watch the surge of obesity and obesity-related disease everywhere ultra-processed food makes landfall (7)(8).

Excess calories that drive positive energy balance in the typical American diet most often includes nutrient-poor refined carbohydrates, hydrogenated fats, and plenty of added sugar (9). This creates chronic insulin spikes that put cell growth on overdrive (10); and it drives fat-packing, especially around visceral organs. That kind of fat that builds up around your middle produces chemicals that talk back to all your cells and that disrupt body functions is active, inflammatory, and oxidative.

Missing for many are antioxidant and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, and anti-inflammatory fats and proteins from fish, beans, nuts, and seeds. These foods provide essential nutrition that, in meaningful quantities, seem to lower risks for breast cancer and cancers of all kinds (11). What Mediterranean and similar eating patterns share is a profusion of immune boosting nutrients that naturally promote weight management and energy balance. This is a lifestyle rather than a diet, and a delicious one.

This month, and every month after, plate more health-promoting odds in your favor:

  • fill up on beans, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit, rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and cancer-protective phytochemicals that keep your digestive system fit (12)
  • get essential anti-inflammatory fats from cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), nuts, seeds, and extra-virgin olive oil (13)
  • try water, herbal tea, coffee, and seltzer in place of sugar-sweetened beverages
  • choose foods that are minimally processed over ultra-processed ones to avoid excess sugar, salt and hydrogenated fats that spur addictive eating cycles, and unwanted weight gain (14)

If you can, cook more. Studies show that food prepared at home is usually healthier (and cheaper) than what we get on the road (15). Learn new recipes to build your repertoire. A cooking class at  Natural Gourmet Institute is great way to get your body moving, try new plant-foods, and fill up on delicious and health-supportive meals.

References:

  1. https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/breast.html
  2. https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast
  3. https://www.nature.com/news/fat-fuels-cancer-s-spread-in-mice-1.21092
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/basic_info/risk_factors.htm
  5. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/new_study_finds_that_most_cancer_mutations_are_due_to_random_dna_copying_mistakes
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25993238
  7. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/
  8. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/08/30/how-much-sugar-are-americans-eating-infographic/#36b222b14ee7
  9. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/research/diet-and-cancer
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28959684
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24330083
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28950673
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28577869
  14. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/02/26/172969363/how-the-food-industry-manipulates-taste-buds-with-salt-sugar-fat
  15. https://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/news-room/News-Releases/2014/Study-Suggests-Home-Cooking-Main-Ingredient-in-Healthier-Diet.html