As a Clinical Dietician and Nutritionist, I am able to say that the breast is one of the most important natural endowments to humanity. It provides the very first and most important nourishment for one’s life – from the first milk called colostrum to the last drop a baby ingests at age 6 months or 2 years. The nutrients and energy milk from the breast provides are irreplaceable, indispensable and very critical to how a baby will turn out cognitively and physically in later life. More so, current extensive research has established a link between intake of breast milk substitutes (infant formula and animal milk) and chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, deranged cholesterols, even cancers.
For a mother, breastfeeding does not only give their baby a healthy start but it also can lower their breast cancer risk. Most women who breastfeed experience hormonal changes during lactation that delay their menstrual periods. This reduces a woman’s lifetime exposure to hormones like estrogen, which can promote breast cancer cell growth. In addition, during pregnancy and breastfeeding, you shed breast tissue. This shedding can help remove cells with potential DNA damage, thus helping to reduce your chances of developing breast cancer.
Today, while the breast enjoy a more aesthetic role, its original nutritional and health benefit cannot be overemphasized. Breast cancer, like all other cancers, is an aggregate effect of so many risk factors including genes, diet and other lifestyles. Research estimates that we are able to prevent as many as 9 out of every 100 cancer cases by modifying our diets. Research also suggests that about 5 out of 100 cancers could be avoided by maintaining a healthy body weight. These statistics emphasise the cliché: You’re what you eat.
Most research has thus far identified saturated and trans fats, fruits, vegetables, natural spices, dietary fibre and other phytochemicals as dietary components that influence diet as a risk factor for breast cancer. Other lifestyles also implicated in probable breast cancer occurrence are smoking, physical inactivity and alcoholism.
Cutting down on the intake of saturated fats lowers breast cancer risks
Saturated fats are richly sourced from the fatty cuts of meat and meat products (like beef, chevon, mutton, pork, sausage) as well as full-fat dairy products (like milk, cheese, butter). Trans fats also occur in deep-fried foods and pastries. The excessive consumption of these fats have been found to play a role in increasing breast cancer risk. The double jeopardy that saturated and trans fat intake have lie in their ability to make a person too big for their height – called overweight or obese – which is an independent risk factor for all cancers. Conversely, the intake of omega-3 fats from oily fish (tuna, salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel), nuts and seed (walnut, almond, flaxseed, chia seeds) seem to have a lower breast cancer risk effect.
Choose to eat fruits and vegetables of all colours daily for maximum health benefits
Fibre is found mostly in fruits, vegetables and whole meal cereals (including flour and all kinds of bread, particularly whole grain). There is some evidence that diets containing more than 25g of fibre per day reduce the risk of breast cancer in pre-menopausal women. A fibre-rich meal is also big on satiety and will help shed some weight or maintain a healthy weight to further lower cancer risk.Fruits and vegetables of all colours and shapes offer us an abundant supply of antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E and selenium) and fibre. Antioxidants scavenge free radicals (which can damage gene of cells that may cause cancer) from the body. A diet high in fruits and vegetables will also certainly include less fat. It is thus more likely for one to keep a healthy weight. These dietary practices help to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
Natural spices like rosemary, dawadawa (Parkia biglobosa), oregano, parsley, prekese (Tetrapleura tetraptera), celery, cayenne, turmeric, curry, cinnamon, cayenne, garlic, ginger and onions contain various antioxidants in high proportions and thus offer anti-cancer benefits. These food substances also serve as healthy replacements for the commercial sodium-rich spices which may put one at a high risk of developing high blood pressure.
Natural spices are excellent sources of antioxidants for cancer prevention
Phytochemicals are chemical compounds originally produced by plants, generally to help them survive against predators. However, research into fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and plant-based beverages like tea (green, black and oolong) have established probable anti-cancer health benefits from the carotenoids and phenols (phytochemicals) they possess via antioxidation.
Other unhealthy lifestyles like smoking, alcoholism and low physical activity are all linked to cancers also. According to statistics from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), smoking is the biggest risk factor for all types of cancers. The AACR again estimates the number of preventable cancers caused by specific risk factors to be: smoking – 33%, obesity – 20%, alcohol – 3% and low physical activity – 5%. As far as smoking goes, avoidance or quitting is the best way out to lower cancer risks. Obesity could be managed by healthy eating and physical activity under the direction of a professional – the Dietician! The risk of developing breast and other cancers from alcohol intake has been linked to excessive ingestion beyond the recommended (2 units and 1 unit per day respectively for men and women). 1 unit of alcohol is equivalent to about 360ml beer/stout, 150ml table wine and 2 tots of spirits.
In summary, while research on cancer-lifestyle link is ongoing and more elucidation is required, it is wise to consider the following lifestyle choices to keep your risk of breast cancer and other cancers as low as it can be:
- maintaining a healthy weight
- exercising regularly
- eating a healthy diet that’s low in processed foods, red and processed meat, sugar, saturated and trans fats, but rich in vegetables and fruits
- limiting or avoiding alcohol
- avoiding or quitting smoking
- breastfeeding especially for at least 6 months, if you have the option to do so.
Food is your best medicine. Always remember, you’re what you eat.
Author: DESMOND PAA KWESI HACKMAN (LD, RD, MSc)
The author is a Registered Dietician & Nutritionist of years of experience in the use of appropriate diet in treating and preventing all sorts of diseases including obesity, underweight, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, deranged cholesterols, anaemia, heart diseases and many others which are diet-indicated. He is presently the Secretary of the Southern Zone Ghana Dietetic Association.