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Eating to Beat Breast Cancer

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We have all heard the adage, “You are what you eat,” but can what you eat really decrease your breast cancer risk?


So says Dr. Mary Flynn, Chief Research Dietitian at Miriam Hospital and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Brown University, and co-author of The Pink Ribbon Diet.

What you eat can affect some of the steps in the cancer progress, as well as sometimes increase your breast cancer risk, including the initiation of cancer, tumor development and progression. In fact, she says studies have shown that while some foods increase your risk, conversely, other foods decrease it.

While genetic and past environmental factors contribute to everyone’s cancer risk and is beyond our control, eating a diet rich in beneficial foods is something we can control that will decrease the risk of breast cancer, she says, and lose weight in the process.

Flynn based her book on a quarter-century of research and experience to produce a unique program to tackle breast cancer for healthy women and those recovering from the disease.

The diet is a two-prong approach to reducing breast cancer. First and foremost it helps shed those unwanted pounds — a known contributor to breast cancer, and second, reducing cancer biomarkers.

Biomarkers are endogenous proteins or metabolites that signal tumors present in tissues or body fluids. Biomarkers are used to identify risk assessment and early cancer detection.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Pink Ribbon Diet is that's it's rich in fats. Flynn says although low-fat diets were previously thought to be beneficial, they may actually increase your chances of developing the disease.

She points to a large study of 50,000 women where very low-fat diets doubled the breast cancer risk. The study results suggest the body needs a certain amount of dietary fat to process and metabolize food properly. Likewise, fats are important in staving off hunger.

“Hunger is what drives people to stop dieting, but eating fat at a meal delays hunger between meals, and helps reduce the overall calories consumed.” Dr Flynn said. It’s not about omitting fat, but rather eating the right fat in your diet. Keep in mind not all fats are created equal.

For example, Flynn says women should include more extra virgin olive oil in their diets and cut out vegetable oils altogether.

“Vegetable oils, soybean, safflower, sunflower, corn oil, all contain high amounts of polyunsaturated fats. I also recommend all my patients limit or eliminate vegetable oils and their products — that means things like margarine, most mayonnaises, some salad dressings,” she said.

The diet is not so much about counting calories as it is about making sure you get a set number of certain food groups a day, however religiously following the diet will ensure 1,500 calories a day.

She suggests women greatly benefit from dark cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens, like kale, broccoli, watercress, brussel sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower — vegetables she calls “super foods” that play a prominent role in the diet. Flynn identifies what she calls her “specific foods” all of which have been identified by research to produce proven cancer-beating benefits.

Once you achieve your target weight, you can continue the diet long-term by allowing yourself the occasional day “off diet”. This means following the diet for four or five days a week, with a couple of “cheat days” when you can return to old dietary habits.

The book is the result of a study that looked at the effects of an olive oil and plant-based diet on overweight women who had previously undergone treatment for invasive breast cancer, funded by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, and features 150 recipes that emphasizes cancer-beating foods that aren’t a chore to eat.

“I don’t expect we will ever get to the day when we say ‘eat these foods and you will not get breast cancer’ but right now we can say ‘eat these foods or avoid these foods and you will lower your probability by changing known risk factors.’ ” Flynn said.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues, she writes a blog, Nonsmoking Nation, which follows global tobacco news and events.

Source: The Pink Ribbon Diet: Winning Back Your Body After Breast Cancer, Mary Flynn, Nancy Berde Barr. Da Capo Press (2010) ISBN 0738213942

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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