10 Foods That May Help Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk
No food can prevent (or cure) breast cancer, but adding these to your diet may help lower your cancer risk.
Eat healthy for your breasts
Protecting yourself against breast cancer means understanding your inherited risk, your need for screening, and the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle. Have a frank conversation with your doctor about your risk factors and when you should start getting mammograms. But eating healthy is up to you—and these are some of the foods you’ll want to add to your plate on a regular basis.
Olive oil is a famously healthy fat, and research suggests it may have cancer-preventing potential. Researchers in Spain conducted a five-year study of 4,300 women to track how characteristics of a Mediterranean diet impacted breast cancer risk. One group of women consumed a Mediterranean diet with extra servings of extra virgin olive oil or nuts, and a third control group ate a diet with just a reduced fat intake. The group that ate a Mediterranean diet had fewer cancer diagnoses than the women who only cut back on fat. Those who ate extra olive oil seemed to have an added benefit, according to the 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. These are breast cancer symptoms you might not know about.
Is coffee OK? A qualified yes, which is good news for coffee addicts. Women who drank at least five cups of coffee per day were less likely to be diagnosed with hormone-receptor-negative breast cancer after menopause compared with women who drank less than one cup a day, Swedish researchers reported in 2011 in a large population-based study in Breast Cancer Research. However, no need to start drinking coffee if you don’t like it. In general, 5 cups of coffee a day is a lot, and this kind of study can only show an association between the two factors, it doesn’t prove that coffee lowers breast cancer risk.
Don’t throw away those apple peels; they may be ripe with cancer-fighting compounds. According to a Cornell University study, triterpenoids and phytochemicals, antioxidant compounds found in apple peels, can inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells. Keep in mind that the researchers looked at how apple extracts affected the growth of breast cancer cells in laboratory culture dishes, which doesn’t mean that eating an apple will have the same impact on breast cancer cells in a person. However, apples are good for you for lots of other reasons (fiber!), so it won’t hurt to get more in your diet. (Stop believing these myths about common breast cancer causes.)
Snacking on nuts, especially walnuts, may have an impact on breast cancer, according to a team of researchers from the Marshall University School of Medicine in Huntington, West Virginia. Eating two ounces of walnuts a day for about two weeks may change gene expression in confirmed breast cancers, according to a small study of 10 women published in Nutrition Research. The woman were randomized to either eat two ounces of walnuts a day or no walnuts between the time a breast lump was identified and before they had surgery to remove it. After surgery, the researchers analyzed the gene expression in the tumors to see if they could find any differences between the two groups in terms of genes that control the growth of the cells. However, keep in mind the study was funded by the California Walnut Commission; studies with a funding source that has a vested interest in the outcome can bias the results.
Salmon is a popular type of omega-3 rich fish, and an intake of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with numerous health benefits. Chinese researchers reviewed 21 studies and found that people with the highest intake of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 is in this category) from fish had a 14 percent reduction in breast cancer risk compared to those with the lowest intake. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3 fatty acids may also decrease breast density in obese postmenopausal women, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Proteome Research. Higher breast density is a known risk factor for breast cancer because it makes it more difficult to see potential cancers on a mammogram. (Keep in mind that lumps are not the only sign of breast cancer.)
Broccoli belongs to the cruciferous vegetable family, which also includes kale, bok choy, cabbage, radishes, and cauliflower. Key nutrients in this group of veggies, such as sulforaphane, may slow cancer cell growth in early-stage breast cancer, according to a team of researchers at Oregon State University and the Oregon Health & Science University. They studied 54 women who were scheduled for a breast biopsy after an abnormal mammogram. The women were randomly assigned to take a placebo or a supplement of a compound related to sulforphone called glucoraphanin. The supplements were safe for the women to take, but they did not seem to affect the breast tissue tumor biomarkers in any beneficial way, according to their 2015 study in Cancer Prevention Research, so more research is needed. Here are 50 other ways to help lower your breast cancer risk.
Here’s another veggie that may help keep your breasts healthy. Women with the highest blood levels of carotenoids, a type of pigment found in carrots, had an 18 to 28 percent lower risk of breast cancer over a 20-year period compared to women with the lowest levels. The benefit seemed strongest for aggressive types of cancer, according to the 2015 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Keep in mind that this type of study can’t prove that the carotenoids were the reason for the reduction in cancer risk, but the results are promising. (Here’s how to make room in your diet for more of these other foods that may fight cancer.)
Onions and garlic
Onion and garlic are the main ingredients of sofrito, a condiment that’s a staple of Latin American cuisine. A study that was conducted in Puerto Rico and published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer compared 314 women with breast cancer to 346 women without it. The researchers found that those who consumed sofrito more than once per day had a 67 percent lower breast cancer risk compared with women who never ate it. The researchers point out that the total intake of onions and garlic, not sofrito alone, seemed to be responsible for the breast cancer risk reduction. Although how onions and garlic may protect against breast cancer remains unclear, garlic contains compounds such as S-Allyl cysteine, diallyl sulfide, and diallyl disulfide and onions contain S-Alk(en)yl cysteine sulphoxides—substances that may have anti-cancer properties. (Learn some symptoms of cancer women are likely to ignore.)
It’s never too early to take preventative steps to reduce your breast cancer risk, even in your teenage years. A Harvard study found that women who ate more high-fiber foods, like whole-wheat bread and beans, as young adults, had a lower breast cancer risk than women who ate less dietary fiber during these years. Next, make sure you don’t fall for these common breast cancer myths.
- Jama Internal Medicine: “Mediterranean Diet and Invasive Breast Cancer Risk Among Women at High Cardiovascular Risk in the PREDIMED TrialA Randomized Clinical Trial”
- Breast Cancer Research: "Coffee consumption modifies risk of estrogen-receptor negative breast cancer” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: “Synergistic Effect of Apple Extracts and Quercetin 3-β-d-Glucoside Combination on Antiproliferative Activity in MCF-7 Human Breast Cancer Cells in Vitro”
- Nutrition Research: “Dietary walnut altered gene expressions related to tumor growth, survival, and metastasis in breast cancer patients: a pilot clinical trial”
- British Medical Journal: “Intake of fish and marine n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and risk of breast cancer: meta-analysis of data from 21 independent prospective cohort studies”
- Cancer Prevention Research: “Sulforaphane Bioavailability and Chemopreventive Activity in Women Scheduled for Breast Biopsy”
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Plasma carotenoids and risk of breast cancer over 20 y of follow-up"
- Nutrition and Cancer: “Onion and Garlic Intake and Breast Cancer, a Case-Control Study in Puerto Rico”
- Pediatrics: "Dietary Fiber Intake in Young Adults and Breast Cancer Risk”