Eat this, don’t eat that. It’s good for you; now, it’s not. Exercise, but not too much, and not too little…
Yikes! We all wish there were concrete answers to the question of diet and exercise choices as they relate to breast cancer. We would love to say, to prevent or cure breast cancer all you have to do is practice yoga for 20 minutes every day, have a serving of broccoli for dinner, and pop vitamin X.
Unfortunately, we don’t have that specific of answers at this time.
While there is no convincing evidence that a specific food, food group, or supplement can prevent, cure, or cause breast cancer, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything we can do to decrease our risk of diagnosis and recurrence.
Breast Cancer: Changing Your Lifestyle Choices
There are three lifestyle choices that we can say – with some confidence – that may reduce your risk of breast cancer, improve your odds of survival if you are diagnosed, as well as help prevent other illnesses.
Engage in Weight Management
Overweight and obese women – defined as having a body mass index (BMI) that is more than 25 have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared to women who maintain a healthy weight, especially after menopause. Being overweight also may increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence.
- Focus on a plant-based diet, filled with nutrient-rich produce, whole grains, nuts, beans, seeds, and legumes. These choices provide fiber that can fill you up at a low-calorie cost.
- Meet with a registered dietitian to help set individualized, realistic, achievable, and maintainable goals.
- Try the American Institute for Cancer Research’s action plan for weight management.
One component to achieving a healthy body weight is regular exercise. According to findings from the Women’s Health Initiative, women who want to significantly decrease their breast cancer risk are encouraged to exercise regularly.
- Make a commitment to being active – every day!
- If you’re not used to doing much activity, start by working toward 30 minutes of moderate activity each day – remember something is better than nothing.
- For maximum health benefits, scientists recommend that we aim for (Source: American Institute for Cancer Research):
- 60 minutes or more of moderate activity every day, or
- 30 minutes or more of vigorous activity. Vigorous activity may include: Jogging or running, swimming laps, or playing singles tennis.
- Consider adding strength training into your routine.
Limit Alcohol Use
Another lifestyle change that has been shown to reduce breast cancer risk is minimizing, or even eliminating alcohol consumption. For more information, check out this Q&A from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- If you don’t drink, don’t start.
- If you choose to drink, limit consumption of alcohol to no more than one drink per day (for women), two (for men). One serving = 12oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, or 1 ½ oz of hard liquor.
- People who are at particularly high risk for cancer should talk to their doctor about not drinking alcohol, or further limiting the amount they drink to help reduce their risk.
While these recommendations may not sound like anything new, I hope they serve as a reminder that sometimes we first must go “back to the basics.” While there are factors like genetics and the environment that we don’t have control over, one of the greatest benefits of healthy food choices and exercise is that you actually have some control.
- Are you eating 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetable every day? You can control this.
- When was the last time you heard yourself say, “I don’t have time for exercise,” or even, “I don’t have time to eat healthy!” You can control this.
It’s important to throw away the excuses for not eating healthy and exercising, and start coming up with solutions on how to work the basics back into your life!
If doing all these things, don’t give up. Know you’re on the right track to taking control of what YOU have control over.
Jennifer May, RD, CD, is a registered dietician at the University of Vermont Cancer Center.