A black woman eating fruit
A black woman eating fruit. © Jason Stitt - Fotolia.com

According to the American Cancer Society, rates of breast cancer – the most commonly diagnosed cancer in African-American women — continues to increase, with 27,060 new cases projected to occur in 2013. African-American women are less likely than white women to get breast cancer, yet African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts.

In fact, in a 2010 report, the Center for Disease Control said breast cancer death rates for women aged 45 to 64 were 60 percent higher for African-American women than white women. That’s because their tumors are often found at a more advanced stage and research shows that African-American women are more likely to develop a form of breast cancer that spreads more quickly.

These grim statistics, coupled with the fact that we don’t know how to prevent breast cancer, speaks volumes to the need to reduce the risk factors you do have control over — by avoiding weight gain and obesity, eating a plant-based diet, limiting alcohol, and increasing physical activity.

Studies show that phytochemicals – naturally occurring plant chemicals, have the potential to protect against cancer by stimulating your immune system, reducing the inflammation associated with cancer cell growth, slowing cancer cell growth, preventing genetic damage and triggering damaged cells to self-destruct before they can reproduce.

There is no one food or food component that is shown to protect you from cancer by itself.  However there is strong evidence that the synergy of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and soy working together, offer the strongest cancer protection.

Fruit

Blueberries, grapes, grape juice and apples are packed with cancer-fighting phytochemicals. Laboratory research suggests that a phytochemical in blueberries called pterostilbene could stop the growth of breast cancer tumors by causing cancer cells to self-destruct. Other laboratory research points to resveratrol – a phytochemical found in grapes and grape juice.  Resveratrol has the ability to slow the growth of cancer cells and inhibit the formation of tumors in breast cells. However, these findings are in the lab or in animals — the benefit to humans has not yet been shown.

Apples contain flavonoids and triterpenoids. In laboratory studies these phytochemicals slowed the development of breast cancer in several stages of cancer development. The peel of the apple contains a third or more of its phytochemical compounds, so be sure to eat the whole apple.

Vegetable

Cruciferous veggies like kale, cabbage, collards, broccoli, cauliflower and turnips, contain unique phytochemicals called glucosinolates. When you chop, chew, or blend these vegetables, it starts a chemical reaction that converts glucosinolates to isothiocyanates – compounds that detoxify and remove carcinogens, kill cancer cells, and prevent tumor growth in the lab.In a study published in the 2009 International Journal of Cancer, women who ate one serving per day of cruciferous vegetables had a reduced risk of breast cancer by over 50 percent. It is unclear if it was specifically the vegetable, or if other factors in the women’s diet and activity also played a role.

You’ll want to also include dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, romaine lettuce, leaf lettuce, mustard greens, collard greens, chicory and Swiss chard on your grocery list. They contain a group of phytochemicals known as carotenoids, and they are an excellent source of folate.  Laboratory research has found that the carotenoids in dark green leafy vegetables can inhibit the growth of certain types of breast cancer cells.

According to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2011, premenopausal women with the highest average intakes of dietary folate had a 40 percent lower risk of breast cancer. Folate is essential for proper cell division, and prevents changes to DNA that may lead to breast cancer.

Whole grains

Amaranth, barley, buckwheat, brown and wild rice, whole grain oat cereals such as oatmeal, popcorn, tortilla and tortilla chips, corn, kasha, rye and tabouleh are all rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and hundreds of phytochemicals including lignans and enterolactone.

Lignans protect against hormone-related cancers by binding to estrogen receptors and inhibiting estrogen production. Enterolactone intake from whole grains has been linked to breast cancer prevention. A Danish study demonstrated that rye bread may be particularly effective in producing enterolactone. The researchers recommended regular intake of whole grains, including rye, to maintain high levels of enterolactone in the blood.

Legumes

Dried peas, beans and lentils are well known legumes. They are packed with folate, fiber and a variety of phytochemicals. Excess body fat increases your risk of breast cancer and fiber can lower that risk by helping with weight control. Folate is essential for healthy DNA and maintaining control of cell growth.

In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, a higher intake of legumes, including beans and lentils, was associated with a lower breast cancer risk.

Soy

You’re probably saying, “I thought soy increased risk of breast cancer.” That’s what experts use to think. Soy foods contain phytochemicals known as isoflavones that mimic the action of estrogen – which, at high levels, is associated with increased risk of breast cancer. Early studies in rodents showed that genistein, one of the isoflavones found in soy, promoted breast cancer growth. But human studies show soy foods do not increase risk. In fact there is an emerging body of research that suggest soy foods may lower breast cancer risk.

Long term studies in Asian populations have demonstrated that eating one to two servings of whole soy foods, such as tofu, soy milk, edamame and soy nuts does not link to increased breast cancer risk.

Remember, there is no one food or food component that can protect you from cancer by itself. However, you will lower your risk by eating a varied diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. Don’t rely on phytochemicals in supplement form – stick to natural food sources which are easier for your body to use. Click here to learn more about the health benefits of phytochemicals.

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD is an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Follow Brown-Riggs on twitter @eatingsoulfully.