The Science of Breast Cancer Risk Reduction

Want to reduce your breast cancer risk?

Delve into the tactics that everyone can do to help them improve their chances of preventing breast cancer.

Antoinette Dulcich is my dietetic intern who is on the road to becoming a registered dietitian. The process to become a registered dietitian is receiving a Bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition, completing 1,200 hours of supervised practice hours in various areas of dietetics, and finally passing a board exam to become a practicing dietitian.

In our conversation we discuss diet and lifestyle factors that can contribute to breast cancer risk reduction, as well as the science behind why these tactics are proven to be effective. Unfortunately, cancer is not 100% preventable, but it is possible to manage certain controllable risk factors that can contribute to its development. As you’ll learn throughout the episode, the best time to ‘treat’ cancer is before it happens!

In this episode, we discuss:

– Why physical activity is beneficial and how much we should be doing every week

– The amount and frequency of alcohol intake that becomes risky

– Chemicals present in common household items that can fuel cancer growth as well as tools to help distinguish between clean and toxic products

– Weight status and why excess weight can contribute to cancer risk 

– Most buzzed about dietary patterns for cancer prevention 

The purpose of this conversation is to bring awareness that a cancer diagnosis usually isn’t due to one single factor and that there are many different pieces to the puzzle. By being mindful of our everyday choices we have the power to aid in reducing our risk for cancer. 

Want more details?  See our full article below, Five Ways to Minimize Breast Cancer Risk


Five Ways to Minimize Breast Cancer Risk

 Breast cancer is the second leading type of cancer and is the most common type of cancer among women.1 In fact, one out of every eight women in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer.2  The good news is that survival rates from breast cancer have been increasing since the 1990’s thanks to better screening technology, early detection, and a growing awareness among women.3 Because of this, the five-year relative survival rate for women with breast cancer is about 90%.4

Is there anything that can be done to prevent cancer in the first place? Unfortunately, no form of cancer is 100% preventable, however managing certain controllable risk factors – such as diet, physical activity, and other lifestyle choices – can lower your chances of developing cancer.5 Our most current understanding is that there are environmental and nutritional factors that play a role in cancer development.6 Overall, 42% of cancer cases in the United States could be avoided (they are attributable to modifiable lifestyle factors).2

Specifically, there are five ways that you can minimize your breast cancer risk:

Get Active

There is strong evidence that physical activity is associated with lower breast cancer risk.1 This association is especially true for post-menopausal women.7 The Women’s Health Initiative study was able to show that women who had a high physical activity level were able to decrease their risk of breast cancer by 15-23% compared to women with very low overall physical activity.8 Physical activity aides in hormone regulation of estrogen and insulin, which are known to fuel breast cancer growth.9 Physical activity also helps to keep the body at a healthy weight, which also serves as a hormone regulator and decreases the risk of acquiring other comorbidities. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans that was created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week. This is just a little over 20 minutes of exercise per day. Any kind of movement is beneficial. Be sure to listen to your body and do what feels right for you. 

Watch your Alcohol Intake

Although the antioxidants in red wine may provide some health benefit, the evidence is clear that excess alcohol intake increases cancer risk.6 Alcohol increases breast cancer risk by about 10% for each drink consumed daily.10 This increased risk is due to alcohol’s effect on estrogen within the body. Specifically, 16.4% of breast cancers among women are attributed to alcohol consumption.7 That amounts to an annual total of over three million alcohol-driven breast cancer cases in the United States. In order to minimize risk, experts recommend that women consume between zero (lowest risk) and an average of one alcoholic beverage per day.1,7 One beverage is defined as just 12 oz beer, 5 oz of wine, or 1.5 oz liquor, so be sure to watch portion sizes – especially in restaurants.

Be Picky About Chemicals

Did you know that by the time the average North American woman has completed her morning routine, she has exposed her face, body, and hair to over 126 chemicals from at least 12 different products?11 The current consensus from cancer researchers is that estrogen-mimicking compounds may play a role in cancer development.7 Estrogen mimickers are a synthetic form of estrogen and once in the body can increase the total amount of estrogen leading to estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance has been linked with breast cancer as well as other conditions.  

Common household items that are known to have estrogen-mimickers are non-stick cookware and plastics for example. There are many steps that you can take to minimize your exposure to these chemicals.  For example, instead of non-stick cookware, use steel or cast iron.  Never heat food in plastic and avoid foods that have been sitting hot in plastic or that have been heated in plastic (think about heating in plastic storage containers, microwave meals, and fast food). Search the EWG Skin Deep database for clean personal care and beauty products (such as cosmetics), as many brands use these chemicals: https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ .  

Achieve + Maintain a Healthy Weight

Another important way to reduce breast cancer risk is to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.1,6 High body weight is associated with a significantly increased breast cancer risk (and overall cancer risk).1,7 A higher percentage of fat in the body typically results in insulin and estrogen hormones to be heightened, which are linked to an increased breast cancer risk. Approximately two thirds of American adults are overweight, so it’s worth a check if you’re not sure where you fall.  You can quickly calculate your BMI using a calculator such as this: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm . A BMI above 25 is technically overweight, although some people with high lean muscle mass may have a healthy body fat percentage at a BMI over 25.  Meet with your healthcare provider if you have questions or concerns regarding your weight.  Also, a qualified Registered Dietitian can be instrumental in finding an achievable, healthy and sustainable path to a healthy weight. 

Focus on Nutrition

Although there is not one magic food for cancer prevention, diet certainly plays a huge role.  Researchers have come to the conclusion that overall quality nutrition improves cancer risk by helping to improve immune regulation and tissue integrity.6 In other words, it’s not just about eliminating or adding in one certain food to your diet. It’s much more about the overall dietary pattern and consistently feeding your body nutrient dense whole foods.  

Overall, the body of evidence on dietary patterns that reduce cancer risk shows that the optimal approach is to eat a diet rich in plant foods and low in animal products and refined carbohydrates.12 This pattern of eating is vastly different from the Western diet pattern that most Americans are following which consists of high sugar, saturated fat, red meat, and refined grains.  Current research shows that there is a possible increased risk of breast cancer associated with a Western diet eating pattern.13

A dietary pattern that has been gaining a lot of buzz for cancer risk reduction is a plant-based dietary pattern. A plant-based eating pattern focuses on eating food that is primarily from plants. This style of eating does not mean that you’re vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy, rather you’re just choosing more of your foods from plant sources.13Plant based diets offer all the necessary protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals for optimal health and are often higher in fiber and phytonutrients.13 The best aspect about a plant-based eating style is that it’s not a one size fits all. There are many different ways to go about eating plant-based, and you can create an approach that works best for you and your lifestyle. 

A dietary pattern that has a foundation of plant-based foods and has been found to have a lot of benefits in terms of cancer prevention is the Mediterranean eating pattern. The Mediterranean eating pattern emphasizes consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil. Foods that are eaten in moderation are poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Red meats are eaten very rarely. Foods that are avoided are added sugars, processed meats, refined grains/oils, and processed foods. This diet pattern is thought to be beneficial for breast cancer prevention because of its high contents of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, which have a protective effect in the fight against cancer cells. The Mediterranean diet itself is actually associated with a 6% lower risk for breast cancer.15

Be Proactive

The best time to ‘treat’ cancer is before it happens!  Aside from routine screening such as self-checks, mammograms, and (when necessary) genetic testing, there are many things within your control when it comes to cancer risk. Remember to keep active, limit alcohol consumption, be mindful of products that may contain chemicals, focus on healthy weight status, and eating a well-balanced whole foods diet! 



  1.     De Cicco, P., Catani, M. V., Gasperi, V., Sibilano, M., Quaglietta, M., & Savini, I. (2019). Nutrition and Breast Cancer: A Literature Review on Prevention, Treatment and Recurrence. Nutrients, 11(7), 1514. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11071514
  2.     American Cancer Society. N.d. Cancer Facts and Figures 2020. https://www.cancer.org/research/cancer-facts-statistics/all-cancer-facts-figures/cancer-facts-figures-2020.html
  3.     National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc. (2020 April 15). Breast Cancer Facts. https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-cancer-facts.
  4.     White N. (2017 October 24). For October, Here are 31 Facts (One a Day) about Breast Cancer. City of Hope. https://www.cityofhope.org/blog/31-facts-about-breast-cancer.
  5.     University of Kansas Cancer Center. N.d. Prevention and Risk Reduction. https://www.kucancercenter.org/outreach/prevention/preventable-cancers.
  6.     Wiseman, M. (2019) Nutrition and Cancer: Prevention and Survival. British Journal of Nutrition, 122(5), 481-487. Doi:10.1017/S0007114518002222
  7.     Rock, C.L., Thomson, C., Gansler, T., Gapstur, S.M., McCullough, M.L., Patel, A.V., Andrews, K.S., Bandera, E.V., Spees, C.K., Robien, K., Hartman, S., Sullivan, K., Grant, B.L., Hamilton, K.K., Kushi, L.H., Caan, B.J., Kibbe, D., Black, J.D., Wiedt, T.L., McMahon, C., Sloan, K. and Doyle, C. (2020), American Cancer Society guideline for diet and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA A Cancer J Clin, 70: 245-271. https://doi.org/10.3322/caac.21591
  8.     Picon-Ruiz M, Morata-Tarifa C, Valle-Goffin J, Friedman E, Slingerland J. (2017 August 1). Obesity and Adverse Breast Cancer Risk and Outcome: Mechanistic Insights and Strategies for Intervention. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5591063/.  
  9.     American Cancer Society. (2018 October 12). Get Moving to Help Reduce Your Risk for Breast Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/get-moving-to-help-reduce-your-risk-of-breast-cancer.html.
  10. Key, T. J., Bradbury, K. E., Perez-Cornago, A., Sinha, R., Tsilidis, K. K., & Tsugane, S. (2020). Diet, nutrition, and cancer risk: what do we know and what is the way forward?. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 368, m511. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m511
  11. Dr. Cobi Essential Health Natural Wellness Clinic. N.d. Endocrine Disruptors.https://www.drcobi.com/blog/endocrine-disruptors-1.
  12. American Cancer Society. (2020 June 9). Effects of Diet and Physical Activity on Risks for certain Cancers. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/acs-guidelines-nutrition-physical-activity-cancer-prevention/diet-and-activity.html.
  13. Xiao, Y., Xia, J., Li, L. et al. Associations between dietary patterns and the risk of breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Breast Cancer Res 21, 16 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13058-019-1096-1
  14. McManus K. (2018 September 26). What is a Plant-Based Diet and why should You Try it? https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-a-plant-based-diet-and-why-should-you-try-it-2018092614760.
  15. Schwingshackl, L., Schwedhelm, C., Galbete, C., & Hoffmann, G. (2017). Adherence to Mediterranean Diet and Risk of Cancer: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 9(10), 1063. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9101063


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