Food for thought on diet and breast cancer

April 15, 2019 Providence Health Team

A healthy diet can have an influential role for breast cancer patients.

It’s important to focus on whole fruits and vegetables.

Nutrition can help boost good cells in the body that are put under stress during cancer treatment.

Breast cancer patients at the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA get top-notch medical care from a team that includes oncologists, radiologists, surgeons, geneticists…and a registered dietitian (RD). That’s because a healthy diet can be a strong influence when it comes to breast cancer prevention and treatment.

“If you look at the recommendations from the American Cancer Society, and obviously for general health, diet plays a huge role,” says Janie Grumley, MD, a surgical breast oncologist and the center’s medical director. “Breast cancer is definitely one of the areas in which we’ve done a lot of research in diet. Now, is it specifically each and every thing you eat, or is it your general health? I think it’s all linked. No one knows if you eat a certain type of food that it turns into cancer. It’s not a causal relationship, but it does have some effect.”

That’s why a RD works with all the center’s patients to review their eating habits. “A lot of patients come in and say, ‘My diet is great,’ but once they start looking at the things they are taking in, they can be very surprised,” Dr. Grumley says.

The RD does a full consultation with each patient, as well as four follow-up visits. It’s recommended that patients keep a food diary to look at with the RD, and then the RD can make personalized recommendations where the patient can improve. The RD has on occasion gone on grocery shopping trips with patients and their family members to show them smart food choices. “A healthy diet is good for the entire family, not just the person who has the cancer,” Dr. Grumley says.

When creating healthy meal plans, Dr. Grumley says there are some general dietary recommendations to keep in mind:

Fresh fruits and vegetables are an important part of a diet. Dr. Grumley recommends patients stay away from highly processed foods whenever possible. “I tell my patients to eat foods in their natural forms. Eat fruits and vegetables as fruits and vegetables,” she says. “I know there are a lot of fads out there, and pills, but to me it’s so much more interesting for your own body to taste food the way it was meant to be taken in. And that takes away a lot of the processing and the by-products. We can get everything the body needs through natural foods, and our bodies will eliminate the things we don’t need.”

Limit the consumption of red meat. “We don’t necessarily want to eliminate it, but we’ve seen that patients who have Mediterranean or Asian types of diets with lower volumes of red meat tend to have lower risk of certain cancers,” Dr. Grumley says. Include plant-based sources of protein in your diet.

Drink alcohol in moderation at most. Like red meat, total elimination isn’t required but consumption should be monitored. There is no recommended safe level of alcohol consumption.

Maintain a diet low in fat. This will happen naturally if meals are high in whole foods and produce, and low in red meat and processed foods.

Be realistic. Dr. Grumley says there is a risk in directing people to eliminate certain foods, because they will just focus on wanting the forbidden items. “If you cut this or that out, it tends to not be a lasting, doable diet,” she says. “If you focus more on small meals eaten frequently, that’s more satisfying, and we know people who eat smaller meals tend to live longer. I think if you look at a lot of cultures where there is a lower risk of cancers, you’re looking at people who eat lower volumes of food compared to what you typically see on an American plate.”

Dr. Grumley notes that a good diet, while helpful, isn’t a magic bullet that will prevent cancer entirely. When it comes to treatment, however, it can be a vital source of nourishment.

“Treatment is tremendously hard on the body — even hearing the diagnosis is stressful — so anything we can do to nurture good cells in the body is helpful,” she says. “Chemotherapy is a perfect example of where we want to nurture patients. We all know that when we are eating better, we feel better and we have better energy levels, so when we are undergoing so much stress, a healthy diet is beneficial.”

Good nutrition is also beneficial for patients once they are in remission. “There are other illnesses or diseases beyond breast cancer that we can avoid with a healthy diet,” Dr. Grumley says.

Learn more about cancer services at Providence St. Joseph Health:

CA: Margie Petersen Breast Center; Providence Health & Services, Southern California; St. Joseph Health Medical Group; St. Joseph & St. Jude Heritage Medical Group

OR: Providence Cancer Institute; Providence Breast Services

WA: Providence Regional Cancer SystemSwedish Cancer InstituteKadlec Oncology ProgramPacific Medical CentersProvidence Regional Cancer Center

MT: Montana Cancer Center at Providence St. Patrick Hospital

AK: Providence Cancer Center

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Nurse navigator: The person you need in your corner during breast cancer treatment

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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