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The Right Foods Reduce Breast Cancer Risk for Overweight Women

Many risk factors for breast cancer can't be changed: family history, the age at which you get your first period, and the age at which you go through menopause. Fortunately, some things can be controlled: studies have shown that women who are in better physical condition and who maintain a healthy weight have a lower risk of developing breast cancer. And now a new study has found that eating certain foods may help prevent breast cancer, even in women who find it difficult to lose weight.

The new study, published in the journal Cancer Causes and Control, found that overweight women may lower their breast cancer risk by eating foods rich in lignans—a type of plant chemical known as phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens can be broken down into two important groups: isoflavones, which are found primarily in soy foods, and lignans, which are abundant in flaxseeds, with lesser amounts in grains, tea, coffee, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, seeds, and nuts.

Phytoestrogens can have anti-estrogen activity in the body, which possibly gives them anticancer effects. Because breast cancer incidence is very low in Asia where people eat high amounts of isoflavones, most previous research has focused on this type of phytoestrogens in breast cancer prevention. In North America, however, lignans make up a much larger percentage of the total phytoestrogen intake.

The study compared 3,063 women with breast cancer (aged 25 to 74 years) with 3,430 healthy women to see what effect phytoestrogen intake had on breast cancer risk. The women answered questions about their diet as adolescents and what they ate two years ago.

Women who ate more total phytoestrogens and lignans had a significantly lower breast cancer risk—but only if they were overweight. Women with the highest lignan intake had a 30% reduction in breast cancer risk compared with those who ate the least. Postmenopausal breast cancer risk was not associated with any type of phytoestrogen; that is to say, phytoestrogens—especially lignans—seemed to protect only premenopausal overweight women from developing breast cancer.

Best bets to lower breast cancer risk

  • Eat plenty of produce—Eating lots of vegetables and fruits, while limiting well-done meats and animal fats, is associated with decreased breast cancer risk.
  • Watch the alcohol—Women who limit alcohol consumption have a much lower risk of breast cancer.
  • Get regular exercise—Physical activity helps manage weight and decrease the risk of several cancers, including breast cancer.
  • Up the amount of lignans—Even if you aren't overweight, adding some ground flaxseed to your breakfast cereal, snacking on sesame seed treats, and cooking with extra virgin olive oil can help boost these health-promoting substances in your body.

(Cotterchio M, Boucher BA, Kreiger N, et al. “Dietary phytoestrogen intake—lignans and isoflavones—and breast cancer risk (Canada).” Cancer Causes Control 2008; 19: 259–72)


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