Foods to Reduce Breast Cancer Recurrence Risk

Diet also supports cancer treatment

Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise promotes overall health, especially when you have breast cancer. While there is no sure-fire method to prevent breast cancer, incorporating foods with cancer-fighting properties into your diet can help reduce your exposure to ingredients that may increase the risk of recurrence.

This article offers tips for eating a plant-based, whole food diet for a well-rounded eating plan to help reduce your risk of breast cancer recurrence.

Foods that may reduce breast cancer risk
Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

The Power of Plants

Most cancer treatment experts recommend a plant-based diet. Filling your plate with plants means you'll be getting a diet that is high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. These foods also offer plant-based compounds such as polyphenols (micronutrients that naturally occur), which may help prevent and treat cancer through direct effects on cellular processes, and antioxidants, which can reduce oxidative-stress damage to cells.

A 2019 study suggested that a diet high in polyphenols led to a major reduction of inflammation in people with breast cancer.

Fiber intake has been associated with a lower risk of estrogen and progesterone receptor-positive breast cancer, and the evidence is growing, as shown in a meta-analysis of studies to look at the connection between intake of fiber with breast cancer incidence.

In addition, a plant-based diet rich in whole, unprocessed grains, nuts, beans, vegetables, and fruit is beneficial for balancing blood sugar levels and maintaining a healthy weight. Keeping a healthy weight over the course of your life is important for cutting cancer risk, including the risk of breast cancer—as a higher body weight means higher circulating estrogen levels. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, breast cancer survivors who are overweight are more likely to see a recurrence of cancer.

However, eating enough calories to maintain a healthy weight can be challenging because cancer treatments such as chemotherapy can cause nausea and also affect how foods taste, making food less appealing, which can lead to unintentional weight loss. Losing too much weight can affect your ability to perform regular daily activities such as showering and dressing.

American Cancer Society Recommendations

The American Cancer Society recommends at least 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit every day. This recommendation is a guide to help prevent cancer in general, not specifically breast cancer—and it doesn't address recurrence.

Cruciferous Vegetables

Although all vegetables are considered healthy, several may be especially beneficial for cancer risk reduction. For example, vegetables in the Brassica family contain sulfur compounds, which may have cancer-fighting properties that can effectively complement standard cancer therapy for reducing the risk of recurrence.

Sulfur-containing vegetables include:

  • Broccoli
  • Broccoli sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Arugula
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Bok choy
  • Watercress

Soy and Legumes

Soybeans and soy products have become much criticized over the years with regard to breast cancer risk. Recent research, however, reinforces that soy's isoflavones (plant forms of estrogen) may help prevent breast cancer—if they're introduced before puberty.

When consumed over a lifetime, these plant estrogens can help modulate estrogen absorption in the body, actually blocking estrogen receptors.

The isoflavone genistein might be cancer-protective, acting as an antioxidant. However, too much genistein (for example, from supplements) may trigger tumor development, especially if taken as an adult or if you've previously had estrogen receptor-positive cancer.

Because there are so many mixed messages about soy and its components when it comes to breast cancer, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about recommendations if you have breast cancer or if you know you are at risk of breast cancer.

Other beans and members of the legume family are nutritious, low in fat, high in protein, and rich in antioxidants and saponins. While they're not purported to prevent breast cancer specifically, they can be helpful for those trying to reach or maintain a healthy weight or improve their health in general.

Good choices include:

  • Beans (garbanzos, black beans, kidney beans, etc.)
  • Peas
  • Lentils (green, black, brown, and red)
  • Peanuts

Berries and Citrus

Many fruits, especially fiber-rich berries and citrus, have multiple anti-cancer features including high amounts of folate, vitamin C, polyphenols, and antioxidants. Each of these compounds may be helpful in reducing the risk of recurrence.

Berry and citrus sources include:

  • Cranberries
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Apples
  • Lemon
  • Peaches
  • Grapefruit

Herbs and Spices

Herb and spices enhance flavor in many dishes and sometimes can be used instead of adding a lot of salt. Several herbs and spices have even been considered as potentially health-promoting, but should never be used as a first-line treatment in place of traditional medical care. For best results, consume herbs and spices alongside a healthy diet and in conjunction with standard medical treatment.

Possibly beneficial herbs and spices include:

  • Cinnamon
  • Curcumin
  • Black pepper
  • Ginger: also beneficial during chemotherapy to reduce nausea

Fatty Fish

Most experts agree that adding fish to your diet three times per week is more effective than taking a supplement.

Consider swapping a serving (or more) of red meat for these fatty fish:

  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Trout
  • Mackerel
  • Herring
  • Sardines

Coffee and Green Tea

Properties in coffee and green tea have anti-cancer effects. Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) and chlorogenic acid (CGA) are the properties of green tea polyphenols, and coffee polyphenols shown to have most of these anti-cancer effects. For example, EGCG causes apoptosis (programmed cell death) of cancer cells.

This is an area of emerging research. In lab and animal studies, EGCG limits the growth of breast cancer cells. How much coffee and green tea people should consume for anti-cancer benefits is still unclear, but if you enjoy these beverages and are not sensitive to caffeine, they are fine to enjoy in moderation.

Foods to Limit or Avoid

Some foods have a direct impact on your cancer risk while others are linked to weight gain, which in turn raises your risk of cancer. It's well worth reviewing this list of what to limit or outright avoid.

Red Meat

Several studies have suggested that the type of saturated fat found in red meat and other animal byproducts may result in the development of breast cancer. As such, daily servings of red meat and processed meats (e.g., hot dogs, lunch meats) should be limited. Instead, build your plate around vegetables and consider meat a side dish, or cook it only on special occasions—especially if your favorite meat dishes are cooked at very high heats (such as when frying, broiling, or grilling). These elevated temperatures can cause toxic byproducts called advanced glycation end products (AGEs) to form, which may be carcinogenic.

Sugar and Sodas

Although artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin) are not proven to increase cancer risk, the diet sodas in which they're used are linked to weight gain and altered immune function. Avoid excess refined sugar and foods sweetened artificially in favor of small amounts of natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, or stevia to avoid your risk.

Salt

Consuming high levels of salt or eating foods that have been preserved by curing may lead to an increased risk of stomach, nasopharyngeal, and throat cancer. The moderate use of salt with food has not been shown to cause cancer, though reducing your overall sodium intake from processed and packaged foods may be helpful for general risk reduction.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a known carcinogen, and any alcohol intake should be modest or eliminated to keep your risk of cancer low.

Most experts recommend that breast cancer survivors either abstain from alcohol consumption or limit intake to no more than one drink per day (even better, just a few drinks per week).

Summary

There are many healthy options to enhance your diet when undergoing breast cancer treatment. However, it is important to consider these whole foods, spices, coffee, and tea as complementary to the treatment plan, not a substitute. Studies continue to show the benefits of a plant-based diet for optimal health.

A Word From Verywell

It's certainly rewarding to build good nutrition habits that can reduce your risk of cancer or its recurrence. While it's not always easy to make sweeping shifts in your diet, small efforts can make a big difference not only for your cancer risk but for your overall health and wellbeing. Food is not only healthy but pleasurable, so you can also enjoy treats. Seek assistance from a nutritionist who can help develop healthy and enjoyable menus.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does diet really affect breast cancer recurrence?

    Yes, it can. A plant-based diet that focuses on whole foods can help with overall health. Onions, garlic, curcumin (the spice found in curries), coffee, and tea have anti-cancer properties. Working with a nutritionist can help ensure you maintain a healthy weight while getting all the nutrients to keep you healthy.

  • What foods kill cancer cells?

    Apples, bananas, cabbage, cucumbers, legumes, spinach, and whole grains are some of these protease inhibitors that are associated with slowing down tumor growth and progression of cancer.

  • What other lifestyle choices may reduce breast cancer recurrence risk?

    Getting regular exercise, staying hydrated with water (not sugary drinks and very limited alcohol), eating a balanced plant-based diet, and getting ample rest are good ways to maintain overall health and possibly reduce breast cancer recurrence risk.

  • Can eating soy cause breast cancer?

    This is an area of nutrition that causes some confusion. Soy can be very healthy to eat and offer some cancer protection, especially when introduced as a whole food before puberty. But, if you have estrogen-sensitive breast cancer, and are taking a selective estrogen receptor modulator, such as tamoxifen, or an aromatase inhibitor, such as exemestane, keep soy out of your diet because it can interfere with treatments.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Originally written by
Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
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