Can diet impact breast cancer risk?

A well-balanced diet can help ward off health problems – and that includes breast cancer.

Krista Maruschak, RD is a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center.

She said there isn’t one specific food proven to increase a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer, but alcoholic beverages are another story.

“A high alcohol intake is associated with a higher risk for breast cancer,” said Maruschak. “Women who drink one alcoholic drink per day compared to nondrinkers really have a very small increase, but if women are drinking 2-3 alcoholic drinks per day compared to nondrinkers, you have about a 20 percent increase in your risk of breast cancer.”

As far as specific diets go, Maruschak said research suggests following a Mediterranean-style diet may lower a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

She said the Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – and these plant-based foods are high in antioxidants.

She adds that antioxidants may help protect cells from damage and therefore may decrease cancer risk.

Maruschak said the most common dietary question she hears from women is whether eating soy causes breast cancer.

Soy contains compounds called phytoestrogens, which have a chemical structure similar to human estrogen.

High levels of human estrogen have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

But according to Maruschak, phytoestrogens and human estrogen are very different.

In fact, research suggests that eating whole soy foods, like tofu, may actually lower breast cancer risk.

“There have been several large observational studies that have shown women who have a high intake of whole soy products actually have a lower risk of developing breast cancer,” said Maruschak. “Studies that have looked at patients who are breast cancer survivors show those who have a high intake of whole soy products actually have a lower risk of mortality.”

Another common question about cancer is whether sugar ‘feeds’ cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society sugar doesn’t make cancer grow faster, but eating a lot of sugar can lead to weight gain which may increase the risk of breast cancer.