“What We Can Learn About Breast Cancer & Diet From the Women’s Health Initiative”

* Photos originally accompanying the initial publishing of this post have been removed to honor the request of the presenters of this session. *

You would be forgiven if you think the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) is a vehicle for women to initiate action and take good care of themselves. You would also be forgiven if you’ve never even heard of the Women’s Health Initiative.

Sitting down with a friend over a steaming cup of coffee to discuss the outcomes and nuances of WHI is not an everyday occurrence for the lay public, but it’s exactly the lay public, specifically the FEMALE portion, that the WHI works to impact.

The Women’s Health Initiative is a multi-million dollar, 20+ year national health study focusing on the prevention of heart disease, breast and colorectal cancer, and osteoporotic fractures in postmenopausal women. In older women, regardless of race and socioeconomic background, these chronic diseases are the major causes of death, disability and frailty. (1)

This robust study was one of the most definitive, far-reaching clinical trials of postmenopausal women’s health ever undertaken in the U.S., and will continue into the future to provide practical information to inform women and their physicians.

The Observational Study portion continues to examine the relationship between lifestyle, health and risk factors and specific disease outcomes, and involves tracking the medical history and health habits of 93,676 women. 

Every aspect of the study yields fascinating outcomes for improving health, yet as you may have guessed, I’m most interested in the Dietary Modification component, an evaluation of the effect of diet, specifically a low-fat, high fruit, vegetable and grain diet, on the prevention of breast and colorectal cancers and coronary heart disease.

I recently attended the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual Food & Nutrition Conference (FNCE) where three dietitians knee-deep in the WHI research presented on this topic; Dr. Marian Neuhouser and Dr. Lesley Tinker from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA (the WHI Clinical Coordinating Center for data collection, management, and analysis), and Dr. Linda Van Horn from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL.

Because this research continues to evolve and yield new findings, it was no small undertaking to distill volumes of information into an insightful overview and actionable directives we can use NOW , but these esteemed speakers did not disappoint. Below, I share the main take-home messages:

Insight Into Why Specific Diet Protocols Don’t Yet Exist

 

Cancer cells are wily; able to successfully evade our immune system’s efforts to destroy them, replicate themselves many times over, invade and metastasize to other areas of the body, build new blood supply’s, and resist cell death. Determining the EXACT way that food, dietary patterns and nutrition can outsmart and confer protection against a cancer cell’s innate arsenal remains elusive – yet researchers are making progress.

Nutrition, Diet and Its Impact on Cancer Initiation

 

We aren’t there yet – true prevention, that is. While I dream of a world where prevention rules, until that time comes I use the term “risk reduction.” Still, findings exist that link diet and nutrition to a positive impact on the cancer disease process at several points, specifically: DNA repair, cellular proliferation, differentiation, the cell cycle and apoptosis (cell death). How does diet do that, you ask?

Per Dr. Neuhouser, who graciously responded to my email request for answers to that question (my notes were sketchy!), “These mechanisms are influenced by nutrients – primarily micronutrients – that act as co-factors of enzymes that up-regulate or down-regulate these pathways. Energy intake also plays a role, because macronutrient intake leads to insulin secretion, and hyper insulin secretion up-regulates the cell proliferation pathways.”

Here’s a translation:

Micronutrients are nutrients in food that the body needs in small amounts; vitamins and minerals, whereas macronutrients are foods required in large amounts; carbohydrate, protein, fat (and water and fiber.) Micronutrients (i.e. vitamins E, C, D, A and minerals like calcium, potassium and phosphorus) act like “helpers” (co-factors) to make other processes happen in the body, and macronutrients supply calories (making up our “energy intake”) to fuel the body. It’s the action of these micro and macronutrients – too much or too little micronutrients and/or calorie intake – in “regulating” certain pathways that help tame or spur on cancer cells in their proliferation or differentiation, support cells in their repair efforts, or encourage cell death.

Having the ability to one day share with patients/clients specific foods that turn cancer cells on or off, knowing how much to eat for targeted results, providing meal timing guidelines, and micro and macronutrient distribution for each individual’s specific breast cancer would be a game changer. Personalized nutrition protocols such as this would make a significant difference in healing, treatment outcomes, risk reduction, and dare I say, even PREVENTION!

What We DO Know

  • Being overweight or obese is linked to nearly every common cancer in both men AND women.
  • Lifestyle factors, exercise AND diet are responsible for ~30% of all cancers.
  • A better diet is associated with lower risk of cancer deaths, which held true for all women in this study EXCEPT for those who started with a body mass index (BMI)  >30.
  • There appears to be an interrelationship between pre-diabetes and diabetes as risk factors for breast cancer, with obesity a contender as the link.
  • We may see some differences in outcomes between the different types of breast cancer (there are many) and diet.
  • Women who ate a high-fat diet at the start of the study (which was reduced during the study through intervention) showed greater reduction in breast cancer risk (possibly connected to weight loss.)
  • Over the long term, postmenopausal women who followed a diet consistent with the American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and other healthy diet indicators (i.e. American Institute for Cancer Research) had significantly lower breast cancer risk and mortality.
  • Breast cancer takes years to develop; a healthy diet should be maintained long-term for the maximum health benefit.

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Putting It Into PRACTICE

As I see it, the challenge for most women in effectively and consistently using the ACS nutrition guidelines lies in only being told WHAT to do, but not HOW to do it. Below are the “whats”, and I’ve added a few “how-tos” to help make this work for you:

6 American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition

  • Eat a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods. 
      • ⅔ of plate filled with vegetables.
      • Eat a vegetable and/or fruit with each meal/snack.
  • Choose foods and drinks in amounts that help you get to and maintain a healthy weight.
      • Serve meals at home on 9 inch plates; have seconds if you’re still hungry (are you REALLY?), yet refill plate only 50%.
      • Take ⅔ of restaurant meals home as leftovers.
      • Order smallest size available for beverages containing calories.
  • Limit how much processed meat and red meat you eat.
      • ≤ 18 ounces/week.
  • Eat at least 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and fruits each day.
      • Not sure how much that is? Use measuring cups to train your eye, or visualize 2 ½ fists full.
  • Choose whole grains instead of refined grain products.
      • Whole wheat pasta and flour.
      • Brown rice.
      • Quinoa, amaranth, whole grain (vs. pearled) barley, millet.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit your intake.
    • No more than 1 standard drink (defined below) per day for women or 2 per day for men:
      • 12 ounces of regular beer
      • 5 ounces of wine
      • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits
    • A standard drink contains 14 grams of PURE alcohol (the true culprit behind the cancer connection, which has nothing to do with the VOLUME in your glass.) (2)
    • For breast cancer, there is NO safe limit for alcohol.

If you want more nutrition and breast cancer information and updates on programs and services, shoot me an email at cathy@cathyleman.com.

I’ll subscribe you to my weekly newsletter, and as a thank you, send along my “25 Ways To Strike Back At Breast Cancer.”

You can follow me here. . .

Twitter: @cathylemanrd

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/eatwellgetstrong/

Easy. Peasy. 

Sources

  1.  “The Women’s Health Initiative” 
  2. “The National Institutes of Health | The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism”

 

“How To Outsmart Your Kitchen’s Counter-Culture”

“Out of sight, out of mind”: The idea that something is easily forgotten or dismissed as unimportant if it is not in our direct view.

If you were to stop reading this right now, snap a photo of your kitchen countertops and text it to me, what would I see?

That may sound like a crazy idea, but it’s exactly what Cornell University researchers did in two fascinating studies. In the first, researchers asked 500 random household occupants nationwide to inventory their kitchen and provide their height and weight. In the second, the kitchens of 210 households were photographed and inventoried, and the occupants’ height and weight measured.

Knowing that we control the food in our kitchen, and environment strongly influences health, the researchers were curious to learn whether the visibility of certain foods sitting out on a person’s counter impacted their weight. While this study showed correlation only, they learned that the presence of fruit on the counter was associated with lower weight in both studies, and the presence of foods like candy, cereal, soda and dried fruit were associated with higher weights.

Hanging out in my own kitchen last weekend, I thought about how certain items on our counters influence not only weight, but health in general (this wasn’t a stretch for me, I’d just been to the grocery store while at the same time contemplating topics for this week’s blog!).

Grapes for nibbling. These were in the path from kitchen to garage where my husband was working. He grabbed one every time he walked by. . .he’s the grazer in the family.
Fruit for snacks/dessert and a visual reminder to cook the potatoes (vs forget while they rot in the pantry!).

I’m all about the HABITS that determine our health, and a simple habit is to carefully curate what hangs out on your countertop!

I’ve counseled many clients who say they can’t avoid eating certain foods when they’re kept in plain sight, regardless of hunger. If this sounds familiar, let’s make that tendency work FOR rather than against you; put the “healthier” stuff in plain sight, and the “treat” foods. . .well, read below to find out.

Hey there grapes – it’s time for your close up.
  • Avoid bringing into the house snacks that call to you from the kitchen. Instead, eat them when dining out (i.e. ice cream, cookies) to help manage serving sizes.
  • Store cereal, crackers, chips and granola bars in your pantry or cabinets. These tend to be “grazing” foods that don’t satisfy hunger, do raise insulin, and keep you coming back for just-one-more-handful.
  • Store bakery treats in the freezer, behind the frozen fruit. Portion out a single slice of coffee cake or muffin for the day, and stash it in the back of the refrigerator.
  • Individually portion nuts into 1-ounce packages; leave 1 packet/day on the counter next to the fruit bowl.
  • If you’re a soda drinker (even diet), store it in the refrigerator, behind the pitcher of water.
  • Candy? An open bowl is too tempting for too many people. Rather than completely avoiding it – deprivation never works – keep it “out of sight, out of mind.”
  • What’s your tidiness score? A kitchen counter covered in books, papers, bills and your kids’ school projects doesn’t whisper invitingly “Come cook with me” – it screams “Call for takeout!”