Yes, mammograms can discover cancerous breast cells early—but that’s not the first line of defense for women. “It’s time to think beyond detecting and treating breast cancer and put a greater emphasis on preventing it in the first place,” says Marisa Weiss, MD, founder of Breastcancer.org. And while a genetic predisposition to the disease is significant, the biggest known risk factor for postmenopausal breast cancer is being overweight. “Every 11 pounds you gain as an adult increases your risk by 3 to 5 percent,” notes Karen Collins, MS, RD, nutrition adviser to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
How to protect yourself, whatever your weight? First, exercise—the standard prescription of 30 minutes of aerobic activity a day helps fend off cancer even if you can’t drop pounds. Second, follow a healthy diet: eat lots of fruits, vegetables and grains, and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (nutrients work better in combination than solo); minimize saturated fats; and give up trans fats. “Choosing the right foods can improve your odds of avoiding the disease and may help prevent a recurrence,” Weiss says. And this kind of meal plan should help you lose weight.
Here are some specific ingredients for your anticancer menu.
Powerhouse Preventive: Oleic Acid
Why you need it: You know about heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but did you know you need omega-9s, too? According to a recent research review in the journal Clinical and Translational Oncology, an omega-9 called oleic acid helps kill cancer cells and enhances the effect of the breast-cancer drug Herceptin when taken by women with the disease.
Find it in: Almonds, avocados and olive oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is best because the first press produces the most phytochemicals, such as polyphenols, which may inhibit the growth of free radicals, notes Natalie Ledesma, RD, an oncology dietitian at the University of California, San Francisco.
How much you need: A small amount (one fifth of an avocado, 1 ounce of almonds, 1 tablespoon of olive oil) every day.
Bonus benefits: Preliminary research suggests that oleic acid, along with the monounsaturated fats found in the same foods, may help decrease belly fat, which would reduce your risk of insulin resistance and heart disease.
Powerhouse Preventive: Lignans
Why you need them: These phytochemicals, found in plant foods, may shift production of estrogen to less biologically active forms and reduce various cancer-related growths, which could explain why they are associated with a lower risk of breast cancer and possibly other types, Collins says.
Find them in: Beans, oats, barley and flaxseed. Flaxseed needs to be ground in order to release its lignans. Since it goes rancid quickly, buy ground flaxseed in small quantities and refrigerate it. Whole soy products, such as tofu and soy milk, also contain lignans.
How much you need: Some fruits and vegetables contain lignans, too, but eating three cups per week of oats, barley or beans is one approach to getting healthy lignans in your diet.
Bonus benefits: Lignans also act as antioxidants in the bloodstream, which could help prevent heart disease. Oats, barley and beans contain beta-glucan, a fiber that binds with cholesterol and whisks it out of your system.
Powerhouse Preventive: Flavonoids
Why you need them: These antioxidants not only have anti-inflammatory properties but also help protect you from cancer-causing agents. “Flavonoids repel free radicals, preventing them from getting through the cell wall and doing damage,” Ledesma says. That’s probably why preliminary research indicates that the lower a woman’s blood levels of flavonoids, the higher her risk of breast cancer.
Find them in: Green tea, wine (red has the most flavonoids, but white has some, too), grapes and chocolate.