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Food for thought: Breast cancer and nutrition
Caitlin Lewis
Caitlin Lewis is a registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist and owner of Lowcountry Nutrition. Photo provided.

By Caitlin Lewis.

One in eight women in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, so whether it’s you, a friend or loved one, chances are breast cancer has affected your life.

In this column, we will explore ways nutrition can help play an important role in the fight against breast cancer.

Everyone knows adopting a healthy lifestyle is essential to maintaining physical and mental health. We’ve also been taught if we avoid excess sweets, cut-out fast food and close our exercise rings on a daily basis, we will live longer and feel our best. What many people fail to realize is that making similar conscious lifestyle choices can reduce your risk for several chronic illnesses, including breast cancer.

As a registered dietitian, I have seen how nutrition plays an integral role in one’s health, from a preventative and recovery standpoint. The following are evidence-based, healthy lifestyle recommendations that may give your body the best fighting chance against breast cancer.

My first recommendation is to make sure you eat a well-balanced diet. A well-balanced diet not only aids in cancer prevention, but helps those going through cancer treatment and those in remission.

A well-balanced diet consists of a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and protein.

Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, which help our bodies fight free radicals that cause cancer. They are loaded with vitamins and minerals needed for a strong immune system. Try to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. Note: If you are undergoing cancer treatment, your immune system may be weakened so avoid raw fruits and vegetables.

Whole grains provide your body with carbohydrates and fiber. Fiber has many benefits, especially for weight management, decreasing blood cholesterol, or establishing proper bowel function. Sources of whole grains include quinoa, oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat breads and pastas. Try to include a whole grain component in each of your meals.

Although fats have been a controversial topic, they are an essential part of a well-balanced diet. Fats are not produced by our body, which means they need to be consumed through the foods we eat, in moderation. Fats help us absorb certain vitamins, protect our organs and provide us with the energy we need to make it through the day. You want foods with unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are considered to be good fats and help lower LDL cholesterol, reduce inflammation and build stronger cell membranes. Unsaturated fats are found in nuts, olive oil, avocados, fish and seeds.

Protein is also important. It is is used by your body to help with immune function, cell and tissue repair and for gaining strength.

Protein will also help prevent malnutrition for those undergoing certain cancer treatments. When choosing your protein, focus on lean proteins such as low fat dairy items (cottage cheese, milk, yogurt), lean meats (chicken breast, pork tenderloins, salmon), soy beans, eggs, and nuts.

It is also important to avoid excess consumption of certain ingredients if you are actively focused on cancer prevention, treatment or recovery. For example, alcohol intake can increase your risk of cancer. A multitude of research studies have exposed that even small amounts of alcohol can increase your chances of developing esophageal, neck, head, liver and breast cancer. Since even small quantities of alcohol intake can have a big impact, cutting down on alcohol will decrease your cancer risk.

Another component is maintaining or achieving a healthy weight. The best way to do this safely is to choose a well-balanced diet and include physical activity into your daily routine.

Exercise can also decrease your risk of developing certain cancers, including breast cancer. As we all know, regular physical activity can help us lose weight; but, it has other important benefits. Exercise can help regulate certain hormone levels, as well as speed up digestion, which ultimately decreases the amount of time that potentially harmful substances stay in our bodies. Last, including strength training exercises into your routine can help those undergoing cancer treatment retain muscle mass and may help decrease the risk for malnutrition.

Before making any changes to your lifestyle, consult a doctor or registered dietitian first. Remember, change can start with something small and grow from there.

Lewis is owner of Lowcountry Nutrition in Bluffton. Visit

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