Making changes to your diet and lifestyle may assist you in the prevention of Breast Cancer, help manage treatment side effects and assist in reducing the risk of recurrence.

Scientific Research is there to help us understand where to focus our efforts. Unfortunately, there are many nutritional theories which have not yet been proven as effective in a real life situation; research is ongoing. It is best to speak with your Doctor or Dietitian before trying a “novel” diet to ensure the likely benefits outweigh any risk of harm.

Aim for a “super lifestyle”, no single “superfood” has all the answers

During Treatment

You may find that your diet varies from day to day depending on how you feel, the type of treatment you have been given, how your foods taste, if you have a sore mouth, or feel nauseous etc. Anxiety and depression can also have a big effect on eating habits and the enjoyment of food. Try to take things one day at a time and seek individualised assistance from your medical team.

A few hints and tips:

  • Monitor your weight each week and let your medical team know if you notice a sudden weight change.
  • If you are overweight, keeping your strength up may be more important to your health than losing weight, whilst you are receiving treatment.
  • If you have a poor appetite, consider having several small meals in the day, foods which are softer and have added sauces can be more palatable. Asking for help with cooking and shopping will help you to preserve your energy.
  • Some people find foods and drinks containing ginger can help with nausea. Colder foods with less smell can also be easier to manage.
  • Changes to bowel habits such as constipation or diarrhoea may effect your eating habits. Drinking plenty of fluid and including fibre is important to good digestive health.
  • You may find soups, stews and juices are an easier way to include enough fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Try to include some protein rich foods with your meals, such as meat, fish, beans, lentils, eggs and dairy foods.
  • Ensure you discuss any vitamin supplements or herbal medicines you may be taking with your oncologist, as some of these can interact with medical treatments.

Prevention strategies

It is estimated that lifestyle changes could reduce breast cancer rates by about 30%. (Breast Cancer Research 2014) Changing our lifestyle includes being more active, maintaining a healthy weight, including beneficial nutrients in our diet and reducing carcinogens (cancer causing molecules).

2 large studies in Canada and America with over 115,000 participants between them, showed a reduction in risk of between 22% and 31% in women who followed standard dietary guidelines. Our very own South Africa Food Based Dietary Guidelines are a great starting point:

  1. Enjoy a variety of foods.
  2. Be Active.
  3. Make Starchy foods part of most meals.
  4. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit everyday.
  5. Eat dry beans, split peas and lentils regularly.
  6. Have milk, maas or yogurt every day.
  7. Fish, chicken, lean meat or eggs can be eaten daily.
  8. Drink lots of clean, safe water.
  9. Use fats sparingly. Choose vegetable oils rather than hard fats.
  10. Use sugar and foods and drinks high in sugar sparingly.
  11. Use salt and food high in salt sparingly.

Fruits and Vegetables

Having fruits and vegetables every day is important for our intake of fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidant nutrients. More and more is being understood about other beneficial substances in fruits and vegetables; Carotenoids in the orange and yellow varieties, indoles in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, as well as anthocyanins in blueberries, grapes and raisins.

  • Include more vegetables than fruits
  • Include a variety of types and colours to get a range of nutrients.
  • Buy organic if you can and the fresher the better as their nutrient levels tend to be higher.
  • Try growing some veggies if you have space, so you can eat them straight from the soil.
  • You may find juicing helps you to include more variety and larger portions. Salads, vegetables in soups/stews and stir frys are also a great way to include vegetables on a daily basis.
  • The minimum goal is 5 a day, you can measure a portion as roughly a handful or half a cup. Studies of populations with lower cancer rates suggest intakes more than 5 a day are even more beneficial.

Processed Meats

Processed meats such as smoked meats, sausages, hams, bacon and polony are classified as carcinogenic (cancer causing). Avoid eating processed meat products, rather choose fresher cuts of meats, chicken or fish. Such as sliced roast chicken, fresh pork or minced meat burgers.

Unprocessed Red Meats

While unprocessed meats have a lower risk, cooking red meats such as beef, pork, lamb, mutton and goat on a high heat or on the braai increases the amount of dangerous chemicals called N-nitroso compounds. If you eat red meat, limit intake to 1-2 times a week and replace with chicken, fish, eggs, beans, lentils and dairy.

Oily Fish

There seems to be a lower rate of breast cancer in individuals who eat a lot of Omega-3 fats, these are found in oily fish such as sardines, pilchards, salmon, trout and tuna.

Dairy Foods

Being female, growing older and having reduced oestrogen levels are all things which can increase the risk of having weaker bones and osteoporosis. Calcium can help to keep bones stronger, the body absorbs calcium best through food sources, of which dairy foods are some of the best. Studies have also shown that including dairy foods such as milk, maas, low fat cheese and yogurt has a protective effect for breast cancer.


Some studies have suggested that reducing total fat intake may reduce your risk of breast cancer. Saturated, hydrogenated and trans fats are also known to be risky.  Some fats are converted into dangerous chemicals when processed.  Eat fewer fatty cuts of meat, full cream dairy products, pies, pastries, cakes, biscuits, chips and fried foods.
Rather than frying at home, bake or grill foods. Save your olive oil for cold dishes or to add flavour at the end of cooking, rather than heating to high temperatures. It is important for good health, to eat fat; include nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil and oily fish in your diet.


Being overweight or obese carries an increased risk of Breast Cancer. The good news, is that weight reduction of as little as 5% of your body weight can reduce risk by 25%. The other good news is that you are in control. Your doctor or dietitian can assist you in setting a realistic weight goal.

With so many diet plans and products available, where do you start? Start by considering your current habits and routine:

  • Do you plan your meals and snacks, or do you grab meals and snacks “on the go”? Try writing a shopping list, plan your weeks menus or keep a food diary.
  • When making a change, consider whether this is something you can stick to for the rest of your life? Rather make several smaller changes which you can realistically continue, rather than looking for a rapid quick fix.
  • Eat more freshly prepared foods, with good quality nutrient dense ingredients. This allows you to have more control over the nutrients your body is getting. It will also assist you in reducing the amount of additives, trans fats, salt and sugar you are eating.
  • To help you to feel fuller and to reduce excess insulin production, choose whole grain products rather than those which have been highly processed.
  • Keep foods and snacks simple, you do not have to be the next Masterchef to eat well.


Soya and its role with Breast Cancer is a not yet fully understood. While it seems that soya can have a protective effect against breast cancer in some societies, it is also known to have a similar chemical structure to oestrogen. It is not yet known how much soya is safe in women with oestrogen sensitive breast cancer. The current advice is to avoid large quantities if you have been diagnosed with an oestrogen sensitive type of cancer.


Limiting processed sugars and refined carbohydrates is beneficial for our health and for weight control. It is important to remember that our bodies breakdown starchy carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, potato, fruit and vegetables in to simple sugars for our cells to use as energy. The theory of a carbohydrate free diet, also known as a ketogenic diet needs a lot more research before we know if it is a safe and beneficial treatment or prevention strategy.


It is known that breast cancer risk increases with each additional unit of alcohol per day. In the Nurses Health Study, women with the highest alcohol intake had a 51% greater breast cancer risk than those with the lowest intake.  If you enjoy a drink, plan 2 alcohol free days per week and limit to no more than 1 unit per day.


Try to include activity in your daily life. 3 hours per week is recommended, this can be broken down to 30 minutes a day or into several smaller sessions a day. Consider walking, swimming, gardening or something more structured. Build up slowly from your own individual starting point and seek advice if you have not been active for some time.


Smoking is a well known cause of cancer. Not smoking is an essential part of prevention.

Reach for Recovery is a non-medical organisation; for personalised lifestyle guidance you should speak with your medical team which may include an Oncologist, General Practicitioner, Dietitian, Physiotherapist, Biokineticist and Psychologist.
This information was compiled by Natalie Bowden BSc Dietitian (hons), London 2004. Natalie is also a Breast Cancer Survivor.

References and websites for a more in depth understanding
A.Howell, Breast Cancer Research 2014