Diet for health

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(HOST) Can diet help lower women’s risk of breast cancer?  Commentator Rachel Johnson discusses how you can eat to beat the odds.

(JOHNSON) I need two hands to count the number of friends and colleagues who learned in the past year or so they have breast cancer.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; after skin cancer, it’s the most common cancer women face.  

Even women with extensive health knowledge, who seem to get everything right, get cancer.  We all know there are some things we just can’t control.  We can’t change risk factors like our family history and scientists predict that over one-quarter of breast-cancer risk is due to inherited factors.  But eating well is part of doing everything you can to tip the odds in your favor.  So what can women do to lower our risk?   

Drink moderately, if at all.  According to my colleague Dr. Larry Kolonel, director at the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii, even as little as one drink a day increases breast-cancer risk.  On the one hand, we know consuming alcohol in moderation has benefits for the heart – and heart disease kills far more women than cancer does.  But consider limiting yourself to one drink a day; more won’t provide additional heart benefits.  And if you have a family history of breast cancer, you may want to avoid alcohol altogether.

Stay lean and keep moving.  One of the most important ways to reduce risk of breast cancer is to avoid gaining weight.  This means balancing a healthy diet with plenty of exercise.  A study of over 100,000 women reported that those who got regular, strenuous exercise had a lower risk of developing breast cancer than others who didn’t.  So commit yourself to regular exercise, if you haven’t already.

Eat soyfoods but not supplements.  In countries like China and Japan where soyfoods such as tofu and soy nuts area commonly eaten, breast-cancer rates are among the lowest in the world.  But Dr. Kolonel warns against popping supplements.  The high doses of soy phytoestrogens found in supplements can behave like estrogen in the body, causing breast-cell changes that could potentially lead to cancer.  The bottom line – breast-cancer survivors and women at high risk for the disease should avoid soy supplements.

Lastly work at boosting fruits and vegetables.  The Women’s Healthy Eating and Living Study found that women who ate at least five servings of vegetables and fruits a day, along with taking a brisk 30 minute daily walk, cut their risk of dying from breast cancer by half.  My friend Dr. Cheryl Rock from the University of California San Diego and lead scientist on the study, advises that a healthy weight is what matters most.  But if women aren’t able to lose weight but eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and exercise, they can still lower their risk of cancer recurrence.  So eating more fruits and vegetables certainly can’t hurt and may help.  

These simple strategies could lower your cancer risk – and give you a healthier heart too.  All that – plus the confidence that comes with knowing you’re doing everything in your power to stay healthy too.   

Nutritionist Rachel Johnson is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM and an advisor to EatingWell magazine.    

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