Breast health

Breast care and nutrition. Interview with a nutrition specialist

Nutrition specialist Baiba Iskrova is talking with ambassador and obstetrics & gynecology resident doctor Laura Lūse

L: I believe nutrition is the most fundamental human function, which involves a multitude of choices, making it a critically important topic to talk about. How is it in the end - do our nutritional choices affect the risk of developing breast cancer? 

B: If we are talking about the impact that nutrition has on the risk of developing breast cancer, first and foremost I would like to say that it most definitely does not cause cancer or treat it. Our diet serves a preventative role, which can help minimize the chances of developing an illness and in cases where the person has been diagnosed with cancer, nutrition can assist in the treatment and recovery process by possibly alleviating some complications. 

If we are talking about nutrition and breast cancer, it is important to know what we are able to control and alter that will in turn lower breast cancer risk. For example, maintaining a healthy body weight. That is without a doubt one of the most important primary preventative measures. Excess body weight is a risk factor that is associated with 13 types of cancer. Similarly we can also limit our alcohol intake. It would be advised not to consume it at all. 

L: What are the most common myths about the correlations between nutrition and breast cancer? 

B: I am less aware of myths targeting specifically breast cancer, yet there are many surrounding cancer in general. Commonly heard are ideas that specific food products, such as milk or gluten cause cancer, which is not correct. If we are talking about milk then in reality it has a protective influence over breast cancer. 

Continuing with specific food products, fungus or mushrooms are widely referenced to be beneficial in preventing cancer. People speculate about attributed cancer healing properties mushrooms have, however this is not true. A positive influence of certain fungus has been observed nevertheless it absolutely cannot be relied upon to completely treat cancer or prevent you from developing it. 

Another one of the most popular contemporary myths focuses on the PH diet. It is based on the notion that products with a low PH value should not be included in the diet, for example incorporating foods like meat and sugar because they advance cancer development. This is not accurate as fluctuations in PH do not cause cancer. 

Popular media has highlighted certain extraordinary properties of foods, such as turmeric. The idea of taking a single food product or spice and completely excluding it from your diet or the opposite consuming excessive amounts in the hopes that it will prevent you from developing cancer is an unreliable and fruitless pursuit. Nutrition has to be practiced holistically, both as a lifestyle and the composure of everyday choices on the things you decide to put on your plate. One certain food or supplement will not be the defining factor that determines if you have an oncological risk or not. It is necessary to look at it as a whole. 

Returning back to breast cancer, it is critical to understand that it is not possible to differentiate between foods that will increase the likelihood of one cancer or slow down the development of another. In terms of prevention there are no bad products, everything has to be in balance. A plate should contain a variety of food groups, and there are certain foods that should occupy larger proportions in order to provide the body with necessary antioxidants, which help fight stress induced consequences, however there is nothing that should be completely excluded. 

It is advised to consume less food products with a high glycemic index (simple sugars). This applies for excessive amounts. Large quantities of these foods may result in increased body weight, insulin resistance and obesity which lead to hormonal changes. One undermines the other therefore there is not one single product or food with the ability to alter everything in our nutrition. 

L: Personally, I happen to have a sweet tooth. What would be the thing you would advise me to include in my menu and what to exclude, so overall I reduce my cancer risk? 

B: I would definitely advise you to start with eating as many vegetables as possible. Studies show that vegetables and more specifically non-starchy vegetables - carrots, beets, all green vegetables, leafy greens, garlic, onion, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and squash - have a protective quality. These are the products that should be on your plate always. Vegetables contain a large variety of antioxidants which are essential for our organisms. 

Of course, we cannot forget about quality proteins, which are important to our bodies and allow us to maintain strength and healthy immune systems. One of the main sources of protein comes from eating meat, yet recent studies show that consuming large amounts of red and processed meat is associated with increased cancer risk. There should not be a lot of meat in our diets - approximately 500 grams a week is completely enough, placing an emphasis on balance. Processed meat and the widely renowned smoked meat goods, which is the part of the Latvian national cuisine and is consumed often and in large amounts, would be advised to be replace with seafood. Sausage and smoked meat should be reserved for special occasions or holidays, opting to choose simple products and not overcooking them on the daily. This most definitely would be a preventative measure that would benefit in reducing breast cancer risk. Fish and other seafood should be on our plates at least two to three times a week. 

In addition, consuming whole grain products is essential. They are only beneficial - lentils, buckwheat, barley. Wholegrain bread and pasta to name a few. Of course we cannot forget about legumes, which are not only a rich source of protein but a wonderful substitute for meat. If everyone chooses a vegetarian diet at least one or two days of the week it would only be beneficial. A diverse diet remains the most important tenet of nutrition. There are so many things we can learn from people who eat vegetarian or vegan and their recipes. 

L: Are there any practical tips you can offer on how to implement healthier eating practices in our everyday lives? How do you change unhealthy habits? 

B: From a strictly practical perspective I would advise every person to learn how to read labels. When we go to the store there are products that do not have labels, such as vegetables or fish. Those we should choose first to put in our baskets. Then there are packaged goods for which we should understand what is written on the label. Two things that definitely should be considered are sugar and salt content. Good products are those in which sugar levels are no larger than 5 grams for 100 grams of the product and for salt this indicator does not exceed 1,25 grams per 100 grams of the product. This is yet another reason why visiting a nutrition specialist can serve beneficial in learning how to correctly read labels. 

I will also mention that it is important to prioritize products with greater nutritional value that are most likely fresh produce. As always learning to cook is encouraged! Preparing healthy delicious food gives us a chance to willingingly incorporate a diverse range of produce.  

Expanding on guidance in how and which vegetable and fruits to include in your diet, the rainbow principle is important to mention. The more colorful your plate is the better! One more important thing that is worth mentioning is for women who are approaching menopause... This is the age during which everything changes in a woman's body and in terms of nutrition it is critical to balance variety with portion size. To one's best ability it is advised to choose quality produce and consciously follow serving sizes that guarantee to serve a preventative purpose. 

L: Next the role of a nutrition specialist must be mentioned. How can a nutrition specialist aid in practising preventative measures? What happens during a first time visit? 

B: I would recommend everyone go see a nutrition specialist even if you have complete confidence in your knowledge about food. There are nuances that a lot of people are not aware of and miss in their everyday practice that demand our attention. 

During a first visit a nutrition specialist will spend a lot of time asking questions about your eating habits, lifestyle, sleeping habits, physical activity levels, parental and family illness history. The next step which is important for a nutrition specialist are blood tests. Bloodwork results provide the necessary objective insight into the health status of the client. Every specialist has a custom list of blood tests they require, however knowing your blood sugar and cholesterol levels is a good starting point. Everyone should be aware of those.

If you have previously done genetic tests to determine breast cancer risk, during your visit to the nutrition specialist these results can be useful in further analysis of your eating behaviours which will allow for more tailored nutritional guidance. These recommendations might include which products to incorporate more regularly into your diet and which should be avoided. 

You can watch the full conversation on the Facebook page. There you will learn more about food supplements, the vegan diet and breast cancer risk and answers to more in-depth questions regarding this topic.