Body Weight and Breast Cancer Risk: A New Way to Eat

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Eating right and exercising during breast cancer treatment is something we survivors often abandon in the upheaval of chemo, radiation, and surgery. The result? Weight gain or loss. Severe weight loss can injure your overall health; but significant weight gain can put you at risk of recurrence – even death.

    Still, there are ways to control body weight, short of the traditional (and challenging) low-fat, low-calorie, or low-carb diet. Read how a variation on the Mediterranean diet may help you maintain a healthy weight, lower your risk of breast cancer recurrence – and still enjoy what you eat. 

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    If you’ve been through breast cancer treatment, you understand the toll it takes on you – both physical, and emotional. This usually translates to a change in diet. Some days you’re too tired to eat; others, you crave only ice cream. Or the comfort of cookies.

    And exercise? “I’m exhausted. I have to take care of myself; I don’t want to overdo.”

    Cancer treatment makes it oh-so-tempting to stop exercising, and to eat whatever you feel like, whenever you want it. After all, aren’t you suffering enough without dragging yourself to the gym, or eating an apple – instead of that slice of apple pie you’d rather have?

    Well, that’s the emotional part of cancer kicking in. “I’m going through hell, and I deserve to pamper myself.” A natural enough feeling, sure; but the problem is, too often “pampering” means eating unhealthy foods – and abandoning the exercise that would actually make you feel better.

    Which translates to weight gain – and a greater possibility your cancer will return.

    Studies show that adding 10% or more to your weight during treatment increases your risk of recurrence; and makes you 25% more likely to die of breast cancer. In addition, a 2007 Johns Hopkins study found that women who gained 22 pounds or more between diagnosis and the end of treatment increased their risk of death by 80%; and obese women were twice as like to die as women whose weight had remained within 10% of their pre-diagnosis normal. (Harvey, 2011)

    To put that in simple terms: if you weigh 136 pounds when you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, and you weigh under 150 pounds when you finish treatment, you haven’t increased your risk of recurrence or death.

    Now that’s a pretty straightforward goal with easily understandable benefits.

    But how do you achieve that goal?

    For some women, the answer may be a diet high in vegetables, whole grains – and first-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. The Plant-Based Olive Oil (PBOO) diet is detailed in a book by Mary Flynn, a nutrition researcher and assistant professor of medical science at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School. The Pink Ribbon Diet: A Revolutionary New Weight Loss Plan to Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk, co-authored with cookbook author Nancy Verde Barr, is a diet/recipe/lifestyle book – of which there are plenty around, right?

    The difference is, Flynn’s book is directed specifically at breast cancer survivors. And it’s based on the results of a study Flynn undertook, with support from the Susan B. Komen for the Cure foundation. The study compared a traditional low-fat diet recommended by the National Cancer Institute, and a higher-fat diet Flynn herself devised.

  • In a nutshell, breast cancer survivors on the Flynn diet lost more weight than they did on the low-fat diet; and at the end of the study, given the choice, nearly 100% chose to stick with Flynn’s diet.

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    Why? It’s just plain tastier.

    Now, don’t log on to Amazon or run to the library for Flynn’s book expecting the PBOO diet is the answer to all your eating woes. Clearly, Flynn’s regimen isn’t for everyone; it takes a commitment to eating a lot of vegetables and whole grains, with limited animal protein. If you’re thinking, “No way, José” – then don’t even attempt this diet.

    But if you already follow the Mediterranean diet, with its heavy reliance on fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, you may want to check out what Flynn has to say.

    Not only do the foods on the PBOO diet promote weight loss, and/or the maintenance of a healthy weight; they also include phytonutrients and antioxidants, both of which can lower the risk of breast cancer recurrence. In fact, the women in Flynn’s study who followed her diet showed a lower level of triglycerides, a breast cancer biomarker, compared to those following a standard low-fat diet.  

    Are you ready to be serious about your weight? Does a diet rich in vegetables and whole grains sound good to you – or at least not scare you off? Then you may want to check out Flynn’s book. Its 150 recipes for healthy (and tasty) dishes, combined with Flynn’s easy-to-digest on the relationship between food, weight, and breast cancer, make for some delicious reading.


    Harvey, C. (2011, July/August). How eating fat can save your life. Brown Alumni Magazine, 22-29

Published On: October 10, 2012