The Weight and Breast Cancer Connection

Extra pounds raise your breast cancer risk

Photo: Three healthy women walking in the city

Over the last few decades, women have had breast cancer awareness hammered into their heads, especially during October. For good reason, too: breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer in women, but there are ways to protect your health. Knowing your family history of breast cancer and getting age-appropriate screenings is a good start. But did you know managing your weight is an important step in lowering your breast cancer risk?

There are some breast cancer risk factors you can’t control, such as your genetics or your age. But there are some you can control, and your weight is one that you have the most control over. “Weight gain of 20 pounds or more after the age of 18 may increase your breast cancer risk after menopause,” says Susan Brown, RN, managing director of health and science education at the Susan G. Komen organization. “Gaining weight after menopause also increases the risk of breast cancer.”

Talk to your doctor about your current weight and your overall breast cancer risk. Whether your goal is to lose weight or avoid gaining weight, use these simple tips.

Choose healthier foods
Good health starts in the kitchen. “Eating a healthy diet will help women avoid weight gain, which will help to lower breast cancer risk as well as the risk of other cancers,” says Debbie Saslow, PhD, director of breast and gynecologic cancer at the American Cancer Society. She recommends eating:

  • More fruits and vegetables
  • More 100% whole grains, such as whole grain bread and brown rice
  • Less refined grains, such as white bread or white rice
  • More lean proteins, such as chicken, fish, and beans
  • Less red and processed meat
  • More unsaturated fats, which are found in salmon, avocados, and vegetable oils
  • Less saturated and trans fats, which are often found in fried or fast foods

Sip smarter drinks
What you drink can affect your weight, too. Sugary coffee beverages, soda, iced tea, and even sports drinks contain calories that can add up fast. Choose water as much as possible. Add lemon, orange, or berries for low-calorie flavor.

Alcohol can also add extra calories. More important, drinking alcohol can increase your risk for breast cancer. “If you drink alcohol, limit it to less than one drink of alcohol a day for women and two drinks a day for men,” Brown says.

Move throughout the day
Eating well helps you control the calories you put in your body, and staying active helps you burn them off. But research suggests exercise does more than keep your waistline in check. “Exercise not only fights obesity, but also lowers estrogen and insulin levels,” Brown says. High estrogen and insulin levels have been linked to higher breast cancer risk.

Aim for at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each day. Traditional workouts count, but so do everyday activities:

  • Walking the dog
  • Mowing the lawn or raking leaves
  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Cleaning or doing laundry
  • Bowling, golfing, or skiing with friends
  • Dancing at home