One of the biggest health fears we currently face is hearing the words, “You have breast cancer.” Indeed, it has happened to our mothers, our aunts, our co-workers, our neighbors, our sisters, our friends, our daughters (gulp) and maybe even ourselves. And no wonder we are fearful… one in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime with an even larger likelihood among African-American women. And although the risk of death due to breast cancer has been on the decline, over 40,000 women are likely to die in the U.S. due to breast cancer this year.
I am especially close to this fear. Like many women I live with fibrocystic breast disease which makes detecting and evaluating lumps much more challenging. I have experienced multiple biopsies and MRIs and although I have been lucky so far, the same dread and breath-holding returns each time a new lump appears or morphs ever so slightly. In addition, as someone who is adopted, I have little information as to whether it runs in my family. And I have new concerns for my daughter now that she is a teenager.
But we are not just bystanders on our health journey and while our life choices are no guarantee that breast cancer will pass us by, there are steps we can take to help our bodies step up to cancer prevention or re-occurrence. If one silver lining can be found in our awareness of breast cancer, it is the motivation to move toward a lifestyle that can not only arm us against breast cancer but numerous other chronic and killer diseases like colon cancer, heart disease and obesity.
Eating a plant-based, unprocessed diet along with getting adequate sleep, exercise, managing stress and spiritual nurturing are of course paramount to preventing and managing all dis-ease. a nutrient-dense diet rich in omega-3s, wild-caught fish and pastured poultry, abundant vegetables, nuts and seeds and seasonal fruits along with whole non-gluten grains and legumes has been shown to provide key nutrients shown to prevent cancer and crowd out sugar, processed oils and refined carbs that feed the cancer monster. Interestingly, one of the qualities of a plant-driven diet is that it is high in dietary fiber which continues to be linked with decreases in the occurrence and re-occurrence of breast cancer. Let’s talk more about that link…
What is the link between fiber and breast cancer?
First, fiber is contained in all plant foods but is predominately found in whole grains, beans and legumes, seeds, select vegetables and fruits. We often think of a big bowl of bran cereal as the ultimate source of fiber but unprocessed foods are a much more beneficial way to take in fiber. Fiber acts to support liver detoxification, healthy elimination, stabilize blood sugar, lower cholesterol and help women manage weight because they are filling and “energy-dense.”
The link between high fiber foods and cancer, especially breast cancer, has been examined for a long-time and new studies are continuing to help enlighten our understanding that high-fiber diets can help reduce the rate of breast cancer. Notably, a recent meta-analysis (an analysis of 47 independent studies) published by Oncotarget in 2016 showed a 12% decrease in breast cancer risk with higher dietary fiber intake, particularly in post-menopausal women. Furthermore, breast cancer incidents are reduced by 4% with every 10 gram increase in daily dietary fiber.
The reason fiber may decrease breast cancer risk has been explained mostly by fiber’s ability to combine with harmful and carcinogenic substances in the gut and help eliminate them from the digestive system. Specifically, cancer-causing chemicals and excess estrogens which have been shown to cause breast cancer can be escorted out of the body by the cellular structure of high-fiber foods. Fiber can also promote the growth of probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, in the gut which can support the destruction of carcinogens. Furthermore, high-fiber diets can help decrease insulin resistance which has been correlated with a reduction in breast cancer risk. Essentially, a high-fiber diet helps our bodies take out the hormonal and environmental trash and build our defenses against carcinogens.
Another study that makes me as a mom feel more empowered is a study published in 2016 in Pediatrics that suggests young women who enjoy a high-fiber diet experience 12%-19% lower breast cancer risk later in life.
So…how much fiber do we need?
Are you now envisioning yourself having to chow down on bowls of beans each day? Luckily, fiber comes from a wide variety of healthy and delicious plant-based sources that we outline below. Most studies and experts suggest that our bodies need at least-25 grams of fiber and optimally, 35 grams, each day to effectively support our body’s ability to fight cancer. And, we have some work to do on that front as the average U.S. woman consumes less than 13 grams of fiber each day.
It’s important to understand there are two types of dietary fiber—soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and is found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains including oatmeal, apples, citrus fruits, strawberries, dried beans, barley, potatoes, raw cabbage, and pasta and has been associated with helping reduce chronic health conditions like health problems including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and is found in grain brans, fruit pulp, and vegetable peels and skins. While both sources are very important, insoluble fiber is the type of fiber most strongly linked to cancer protection and improved waste removal.
Below you can find a list of some of my favorite high-fiber foods. I recommend a diet centered around vegetables with daily doses of seeds and augmented with high-fiber grains, legumes and fruits to tolerance. A more comprehensive list can be found here.
Vegetables: Collard greens, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, green beans, Swiss chard, sweet potatoes (with skin), winter squash
Grains and legumes: Chick peas, lentils, oats, quinoa, soybeans, tempeh*
Fruits: raspberries, strawberries, pear, apple with skin, avocado
Seeds: chia seeds, flaxseeds*, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
*Flaxseeds and unprocessed soy may have extra protective properties due to their phytoestrogenic properties which have been shown to inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells
Simple Steps You Can Take
It might seem overwhelming to add so much fiber into your diet right away and indeed, you need to go slow and drink a lot of water to avoid digestive upset. Here are a few easy ways:
Add two tablespoons of chia or flaxseed to your breakfast every morning
Choose high-fiber legumes and/or grains instead of white pasta and rice
·Snack on high-fiber pumpkin seeds, berries and avocado and occasional popcorn
·Fill half of your plate with leafy and crunchy vegetables at each meal, especially lunch and dinner, and go heavy on the cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kale
·Sprinkle lentils and chick peas on your salad or enjoy in soup
If you experience bloating, constipation, diarrhea, flatulence or belching when you consume higher-fiber foods, you should look into lower starch, fibrous foods or focus on healing your gut in order to rebalance your microbiome. High fiber diets and poor gut health are not always a good match.
I hope this information makes you feel more empowered to make a difference in your breast health and enjoy happier hormones overall!
Chen S, Chen Y, Ma S, et al. Dietary fibre intake and risk of breast cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Oncotarget. 2016;7(49):80980-80989. doi:10.18632/oncotarget.13140.
Farvid MS, Eliassen AH, Cho E, Liao X, Chen WY, Willett WC. Dietary Fiber Intake in Young Adults and Breast Cancer Risk. Pediatrics. 2016;137(3):e20151226. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-1226.
Romm, Aviva, MD. “Preventing Breast Cancer: Your Eight-Step Personal Action Plan, retrieved from: https://avivaromm.com/preventing-breast-cancer-your-8-step-personal-action-plan/
Sangaramoorthy M, Koo, J, John, EM. Intake of bean fiber, beans, and grains and reduced risk of hormone receptor‐negative breast cancer: the San Francisco Bay Area Breast Cancer Study. Cancer Medicine 2018; 7(5):2131–2144.