Girl Planting seeds

shutterstock_100258691By Rebecca Hirsch, MS, RD
It is widely known that healthy eating and exercise are critical to reducing breast cancer risk and helping with breast cancer treatment. However, questions remain for many women: What is “healthy eating”? How often is one expected to be physically active? With the likelihood of one in eight women developing breast cancer, are these factors really a way to reduce the risk of developing this disease?

While certain risk factors remain uncontrollable, weight management through healthy lifestyle behaviors has been shown to reduce disease risk. The good news is, it is simpler than one may think. By taking away a focus on “diets” and shifting understanding to ideas and actions that progressively change our bad habits into good ones; you have the power to easily take the first step!


What is good nutrition and how can it help with breast cancer prevention?


With controversy still existing as to what the best specific diet to prevent and treat breast cancer is, it remains clear that it is critically important to maintain a reduced calorie, balanced diet.  Use these tips as a guide to get you started:


·         Strive to have at least 5 servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables daily.  Color is a key tool in ensuring that you are consuming the mixture of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that will help keep your body strong.


·         Go for the whole grain! By choosing whole grain breads, rice, pasta and cereals, you are adding extra fiber and healthy nutrients into your daily diet.  It’s no secret. Fiber is key in helping to “keep things moving”.  It can also provide an earlier feeling of satiety, helping to control our hunger and need for seconds!


·         Choose your proteins wisely! Protein is an essential part in your body’s effort to build, repair and maintain itself.  Limit the amount of processed meats and red meat that you consume.  If you choose to eat meat, a preferred choice is organic, grass-fed (not factory-farmed). Choose fish such as cod, salmon and krill. Reduce tuna and sword fish, which may contain high levels of mercury, pcb’s and dioxins (see EWG’s Fish Guide for more info).  Focus on plant-based proteins (nuts, seeds, legumes and lentils) regularly.  Plant based proteins are lower in saturated fats, cholesterol and calories.


·         Sugary beverages aren’t always so sweet! Excess sugar may be hiding in the drinks that you choose. Eliminate or reduce the amount of soft drinks, shakes, sports drinks, and fruit flavored beverages you consume daily. Instead of soda, choose natural fruit juice or fruit juice drinks sweetened with stevia.  Excess sugar is usually lacking beneficial nutrients and high in empty calories.


·         Consume foods rich in Calcium and Vitamin D. In addition to keeping your bones strong by helping the body to absorb calcium, Vitamin D is increasingly being shown as essential in disease prevention.  Recent studies have shown that low levels of Vitamin D are potentially connected to certain forms of cancer. Focus on leafy, dark green vegetables, fish, fortified milk and yogurt (organic when possible), fortified juice and fortified cereal. Veggies high in calcium include broccoli, spinach, okra, kale and collards. Consult with your doctor or dietitian regarding use of daily calcium and vitamin D3 supplements.


·         Avoid portion distortion! Be aware of how much you consume at each sitting. Choose your plate wisely! Below are illustrations of the MyPlate and Power Plate guidelines, which focus on food distribution:     






Should I go organic?

Though no research has supported a direct connection between a non-organic diet and the development of breast cancer, making organic food choices does limit ones exposure to herbicides, pesticides and other chemical residues.  Use this as a tool when making your next trip to the supermarket:


Dirty Dozen: Go Organic                                                                    Clean 15: Lowest in Pesticides
1.    Celery                                                                                               1.    Onions
2.    Peaches                                                                                            2.    Avocado
3.    Strawberries                                                                                      3.    Sweet Corn
4.    Apples                                                                                               4.    Pineapple
5.    Blueberries                                                                                        5.    Mangos
6.    Nectarines                                                                                         6.    Sweet Peas
7.    Bell Peppers                                                                                      7.    Asparagus
8.    Spinach                                                                                             8.    Kiwi
9.    Kale                                                                                                   9.    Cabbage
10.  Cherries                                                                                            10.  Eggplant
11.  Potatoes                                                                                           11.  Cantaloupe
12.  Grapes (Imported)                                                                            12.  Watermelon
                                                                                                                13.  Grapefruit
                                                                                                                14.  Sweet Potato
                                                                                                                15.  Honeydew Melon

 *Work Cited from: Environmental Working Group


How can regular exercise contribute to breast cancer prevention? What exercises are most effective?



   Regular aerobic and weight bearing exercise can build a positive profile from which breast cancer is less likely to develop. Currently, the American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate level physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous level activity spread throughout the week. Moderate level aerobic activity includes exercises in which you elevate heart rate to the point at which you find that you break a sweat. Examples include: walking at a rapid pace, bicycling on flat level terrain, weight training with free weights and yoga. Vigorous level aerobic activity is a more challenging form of strenuous exercise in repetition where you have reached a more vigorous level of exercise intensity. Examples include: jogging or running, bicycling on an uphill terrain, circuit weight training and most competitive sports.


What are the benefits of limiting alcohol in relation to breast health?


   Recent research has established alcohol consumption as a risk factor for the development of breast cancer in both pre and post menopausal women. Studies show that compared with women who did not regularly consume alcohol, women who drank two or more alcoholic beverages daily had nearly 1.5 times higher the risk of developing the disease. While much focus has been placed on the potential benefit of moderate alcohol consumption relative to cardiovascular health, it is important not to overlook its connection to cancer risk. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research if an individual chooses to consume alcohol in an effort to protect against heart disease, women should have no more than one drink daily, while men should have no more than two (one serving = 12 fluid ounces beer, 5 fluid ounces wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits).


Is there something about soy?


  There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to soy. The impact of soy on breast cancer prevention and treatment remains controversial.  To date, research has offered conflicting results.  Some studies have found a decrease in the recurrence of breast cancer in individuals who regularly consumed soy-based foods.  However, other studies have found that soy isoflavones have the potential to trigger tumor growth and block the effectiveness of some breast cancer fighting drugs.   It is important for breast cancer patients to consult with their doctor or dietitian about whether soy may have interaction with his or her specific type of breast cancer. 


To date, research linking breast cancer and dairy are inconclusive.  However, the saturated fat, pesticide residues and hormones in conventional (non-organic, full fat) dairy products, as in other animal products, may increase risk of breast cancer.  Additional research is needed to clarify the overall risk of dairy and breast cancer.


Reducing your risk of developing breast cancer is as simple as making basic and incremental lifestyle changes.  Many of the factors that can lead to breast cancer are well within your control.  Small changes can make a big difference!

Rebecca Hirsch, MS, RD is an Oncology Dietitian at the John Theurer Cancer Center at HackensackUMC. She works with patients in the areas of lymphoma, leukemia, breast, and gynecologic oncology. Ms. Hirsch primarily assists patients in minimizing the impact of cancer therapies on nutrition status and achieving nutrition stability. Her goal is to optimize wellness through both diet and exercise.
Ms. Hirsch received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor before attending Columbia University where she received her Master of Science in Nutrition Education. Prior to joining the John Theurer Cancer Center, she worked in a variety of dietetic settings including the United Way, the Irving Institute for Clinical & Translational Research, and New York Presbyterian Hospital


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