Never has there been greater interest in the area of nutrition. The reasons are many: from health improvement to reduction in healthcare costs to prevention of disease. Cancer is one area of special interest, as we now know that what we choose to eat, or not eat, may have profound effects on our risk for, and ability to recover from cancer. Breast cancer is an area of intense public interest and research. There are many factors in the etiology and pathogenesis of disease, and no one factor is solely attributable to a diagnosis of cancer. There are many aspects of nutrition, however, that may help to either reduce risk or aid in the recovery after diagnosis.


During the past 50 years, the main focus in nutrition and health has been upon the elimination of suspected foods or ingredients, often without a preponderance of evidence to do so. What has resulted is that often individuals can leave themselves vulnerable to the development of disease because nutrients that support immune function are either limited or missing in the diet. When immune function is compromised, cancer has an opportunity to develop. Going forward the focus needs to be more upon the inclusion of whole, unprocessed and varied foods. This approach offers the best opportunity to capture a wide variety of nutrients without undue exposure to the chemicals and ingredients associated with processing.


Protein is a critical nutrient for immune function and antibody synthesis. Strive to include more plant-based protein in the form of legumes and other beans, nuts, seeds, ancient grains (such as quinoa) and vegetables while limiting the amount of animal protein in the diet. In addition, it’s important to spread your protein intake throughout the day, consuming smaller amounts (1-4 oz.) at each meal and snack. Since the body doesn’t store protein in usable form, it’s important to replenish your stores with small, plant-based amounts each time you eat. Processed/cured meats should be avoided because of nitrite content.


Increase your intake of vegetables to include 4-7 servings of non-starchy vegetables per day. Choosing a wide variety of vegetables offers you the best opportunity to capture the key phytonutrients known to be factors in the prevention and spread of breast cancer. It’s not enough to simply take a daily multivitamin, as nutrition research has now identified over 3,000 phytonutrients available in plants that help to prevent diseases such as cancer by strengthening the immune system and identifying and destroying cancer cells before they can multiply.


While the general recommendations regarding fat intake have been to try to lower the total amount consumed, it may be more important to eat more of the healthful types of fat, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids found in plants and cold water fish. These fats provide essential fatty acids, fat soluble vitamins and help reduce systemic inflammation. All of these factors are important in the prevention of breast cancer. Monounsaturated fats include olives, avocados and their oils, natural peanut butter, canola oil, almonds and macadamia nuts. Polyunsaturated fats are found in cold water fish (tuna, salmon) safflower and grapeseed oils and walnuts. Limiting saturated fat (found mostly in animal foods) and completely eliminating partially hydrogenated oils (otherwise known as trans-fat) is also important. Read label ingredients carefully and if the food contains partially hydrogenated oils it contains trans-fat, even though the Nutrition Facts may say otherwise.


While calcium is an important nutrient in the breast cancer fight, the recommendations now are not to supplement, or at the very least to use only half doses of a calcium citrate formula. In addition, the best source of dietary calcium may not be dairy products, because of the negative effect a high intake of dairy can have on bone tissue. Obtaining calcium from a wide variety of food sources including dairy, vegetables and fish may be the best way to obtain the necessary calcium from the diet.


We now know the importance of vitamin D in the prevention of breast cancer. There are vitamin D receptors on nearly every cell in the human body; hence vitamin D participates in almost all cellular functions. A deficiency has been implicated not only in the development of breast cancer, but in colon and prostate cancer as well. Vitamin D has been shown to be especially important in preventing a recurrence of breast cancer in those patients already diagnosed and fighting the disease. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that actually behaves more like a hormone in the body. It is stored in the liver. Vitamin D is synthesized when our skin is exposed to sunlight. Because of the risks associated with too much sun exposure, we now know it’s important to find other sources of vitamin D. Unfortunately it’s not plentiful in our food supply, so a daily supplement of at least 2,000 IUs is recommended for almost all individuals and especially for women. More may be necessary to correct a deficiency, or in very light-skinned or obese individuals. Be sure to take a D3 (cholecalciferol) supplement in a gel cap form. It is recommended that the blood level of vitamin D should be greater than 50 ng/dL, and some experts say the goal level for cancer prevention is 60-70 ng/dL.


In summary, the best diet for breast cancer prevention is one that is varied, with lots of colorful vegetables and fruits along with nuts, seeds, beans and healthy oils. Limit exposure to processed foods and animal products, and be sure to include a vitamin D supplement approved by your physician or Registered Dietitian.