Breast Cancer and Diet: How Do Lifestyle Choices Affect Cancer?

Medically reviewed by Monica Bien, MPA, PA-C on January 29, 2016Written by Ann Pietrangelo on January 29, 2016

There are two types of risk factors for breast cancer. There are some, like genetics, that are beyond your control. Other risk factors, like what you eat, can be controlled.

Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can help lower your risk of developing breast cancer. If you’ve had breast cancer, these lifestyle choices can help reduce the risk of a recurrence.

What Breast Cancer Risk Factors Can’t Be Controlled?

The following risk factors for breast cancer can’t be controlled:

  • Although men get breast cancer too, the top risk factor for breast cancer is being a woman.
  • Your risk of developing breast cancer grows as you age.
  • Having a family or personal history of breast cancer means you have a higher risk of breast cancer. Also, some people carry genetic mutations that make them more susceptible to breast cancer. The only way to know for sure if you carry this genetic mutation is with genetic testing.
  • If you were younger than 12 when you started menstruating or older than 55 at menopause, your risk of breast cancer is slightly increased.
  • If you’ve received radiation to the chest, especially as a child or young adult, you might be at an increased risk.

Ethnicity as a Risk Factor

When it comes to ethnicity, white women are at a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer followed by black and then Hispanic women. Native American and Asian women appear to have a lower risk of less of developing breast cancer than other women.

Black women are more likely to be diagnosed at an earlier age and to have more advanced and aggressive disease. They’re also more likely to die of breast cancer than any other group. Being of Ashkenazi Jewish decent also increases the risk of developing breast cancer.

Benign Breast Conditions as Risk Factors

A history of certain benign breast conditions is another risk factor that can’t be controlled. One of these conditions is having dense breast tissue, which can be seen on a mammogram. Atypical ductal hyperplasia (ADH), atypical lobular hyperplasia (ALH), and lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) are types of atypical cells that can develop in your breast tissue. These atypical cells can increase your risk of developing breast cancer.

Your doctor can identify these conditions through a biopsy. Your doctor may recommend that you take a medication to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.

What Are Some Risk Factors Related to Lifestyle?

The following are risk factors related to lifestyle:

  • You may gain some protection against breast cancer by breast-feeding your babies.
  • Taking birth control pills or hormone therapy after menopause may increase your risk of breast cancer.
  • The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of breast cancer. If you have two to five drinks a day, you’ll increase your risk to 1.5 times that of a woman who doesn’t drink.
  • Being overweight, especially after menopause, increases your risk.

Pregnancy as a Risk Factor

Pregnancy also seems to play a role. Women who get pregnant at a younger age or who have many pregnancies tend to have a reduced risk of breast cancer. Having no children or having your first child after age 30 seems to increase the risk a little.

However, pregnancy may raise the risk of developing triple-negative breast cancer.

How Does Diet Affect Your Risk of Breast Cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), studies about diet and breast cancer have had mixed results. Studies of vitamin levels and breast cancer have also had mixed results.

However, research shows that a poor diet and physical inactivity are risk factors for all types of cancer.

Since being overweight is a known risk factor, the role of diet is a crucial one.

Tips for Achieving a Healthy Weight

If you aren’t sure what your ideal weight is, check your body mass index (BMI). To reduce your cancer risk, a BMI less than 25 is good.

Eating right isn’t complicated and won’t leave you feeling deprived. Here are a few tips to get to get you started:

  • Watch portion sizes. Take a little less than you think you’ll eat. Eat slowly, so you’ll recognize when you’re starting to get full before you overeat.
  • Don’t be fooled by food labels. “Low-fat” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy or low calorie. Avoid processed foods that are high in calories but offer little or no nutritional value.
  • Eat veggies and fruits. Aim for 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and fruits per day. Fresh, canned, and frozen foods are all acceptable.
  • Eat the right grains. Choose whole grain foods over those made with refined grains.
  • Choose healthy proteins. Eat beans, chicken, or fish in place of processed and red meats.
  • Check the fats. Look for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats instead of saturated and trans fats.
  • Watch what you drink. An alcoholic drink now and then is fine, but women should consume less than one drink per day. For men, fewer than two is recommended. Replace high-calorie, sugary drinks with water.
  • Set realistic goals. Do you need to lose more than a few pounds? Don’t rush it. Crash diets are unhealthy and unsustainable. For some people, keeping a food journal is helpful.

Let’s not forget about exercise. The ACS recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Choose activities you enjoy, so you’re more likely to stick to them.

A Daily Walk Lowers Breast Cancer Risk 14 Percent

Making small changes throughout the day can also help you get more movement in. Choosing parking spaces that force you to walk a little or using stairs instead of the elevator are a few examples. Avoid long periods of inactivity. If you spend your day sitting at a desk, take a few minutes every hour to get up and stretch.

In addition to lowering your risk of cancer, a few dietary changes, along with regular exercise, can boost your energy levels and your mood.

Working with the Experts

If you’re overweight or have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before starting a strenuous exercise program. You might also find it beneficial to work with a personal trainer or nutritionist.

It’s important that you discuss breast cancer screening options with your doctor, especially if you have known risk factors. Your doctor can advise you on the best ways to maintain your health.

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