The phrase “You are what you eat” takes on new meaning in a recent study that suggests a woman’s risk of dying from breast cancer decreases substantially by eating a low-fat, plant-based diet.
Forty-eight thousand postmenopausal women from across the U.S. participated in the groundbreaking Women’s Health Initiative study that began in 1993. The women were in their 50s, 60s and 70s and had never been diagnosed with breast cancer.
For 8 1/2 years, 20,000 of the women kept track of what they ate and tried to consume less dietary fat including red meat and full-fat dairy products, and focused on eating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
Analyzing outcomes after nearly 20 years, researchers found that women who maintained a low-fat, plant-based diet during that period had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from breast cancer compared to counterparts that ate a higher-fat diet.
Researchers said the results provide the first randomized clinical-trial evidence that diet can reduce postmenopausal women’s risk of dying of breast cancer.
The findings come as no surprise to Dr. Craig Brackett, medical director of Tidelands Health Breast Health Program, who notes there is a connection between obesity and breast cancer.
“What we’ve learned is that there’s an inflammatory link between obesity and breast cancer,” says Dr. Brackett, who was not involved in the study. “The more fat you consume, the more estrogen you have.”
Estrogens are natural hormones that play a role in sexual development and other body functions. Before menopause, most estrogens are produced in the ovaries. After menopause, the ovaries no longer produce estrogen and the hormone instead comes primarily from fat tissue.
Higher amounts of estrogen in the blood are linked to an increased risk of breast cancer after menopause.
Dr. Brackett, a veteran breast surgeon at Tidelands Health Breast Center, our region’s only surgical practice dedicated to breast health, says a woman who loses weight can reduce her risk of breast cancer significantly.
“A woman who weighs 200 pounds and loses 40 pounds reduces her chance of breast cancer by 40 percent,” he says.
While the study didn’t establish a significant decrease in breast cancer rates among participants, it did suggest that a low-fat, plant-based diet has a powerful effect on the way the cancer responds to treatment.
Dr. Brackett believes the link between obesity and breast cancer does not end there. He says obesity plays a role in uterine, kidney, pancreatic and colon cancers, not to mention other potentially deadly diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
Just as the study suggests, he says people who want to increase their chances of living a healthy life need to pay better attention to what they’re eating.
“Cheetos and Fritos are finger-licking good,” he says. “But they have no nutritional value.”
He urges people to put the chips and high-sugar carbohydrates and starches aside and focus on eating fruits and vegetables, limiting consumption of red meat and eating organic foods as much as possible.
“If it grows out of the ground, it’s good,” he says.
He says obesity is as significant a danger to people’s health as smoking cigarettes. He encourages people to strive for a body mass index of 26 or lower.
“Changing your diet can be difficult,” he says, “but it can save your life.”