By Hannah Hoag
The Simple Life
Diets for breast cancer survivors don’t have to be complicated
By Hannah Hoag
After a breast cancer diagnosis, many survivors eagerly seek out dietary advice to improve their chance of a long disease-free life. But research into diet and breast cancer survival is still at an early stage, even if hyped headlines on the internet might try to convince you otherwise.
Part of the problem is that the best way to find a conclusive connection between diet and breast cancer is by doing a randomized, controlled clinical trial that tests one diet against another in two groups of women. These types of studies are expensive and take many years to do. But two such trials have recently been completed, and may shed light on the impact of simpler aspects of diet—fruits, vegetables and fat—on improved survival.
In the first study, published in 2006 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers claimed to have demonstrated for the first time that diet can improve breast cancer outcomes in some survivors. Conducting a trial of women 48 and older, they found that those who had been treated for early stage breast cancer and who ate a low-fat diet (20 percent of calories from fat) reduced their risk of breast cancer recurrence by nearly a quarter, compared with the women who stuck to their regular diets (30 percent of calories from fat).
But the study’s authors caution the results aren’t really black-and-white. The women on the low-fat diet lost weight, which may have influenced the outcome. The more fat you have in the body, the more estrogen you have. High levels of estrogen are known to stimulate breast cancers in women who have estrogen receptors on their tumor cells.
Researchers were also curious whether fruits and vegetables play a protective role against breast cancer. Another trial, called the Women’s Healthy Eating and Living (WHEL) study, enrolled more than 3,000 survivors of early stage breast cancer and split them into two groups. Women in the intervention group were encouraged to eat three servings of fruit, five servings of vegetables, 16 ounces of vegetable juice and at least 30 grams of fiber daily. They were also given advice on how to cut their fat intake to 15 percent to 20 percent of calories consumed.
Although the women in the intervention group never hit their fat targets, they received a fruit and veggie boost by the end of the trial.