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Rise of breast cancer in Indian women is alarming but expected. It’s your ‘Western’ diet

If news of breast cancer cases rising among women is shocking, it's time to leave your 'inflammatory diet'. Here's a healthier model.

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Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women worldwide. In 2020, approximately 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer, and 6.85 lakh deaths were recorded globally; 7.8 million women were listed as survivors by the end of 2020, making it the world’s most prevalent cancer as stated by the World Health Organization.

Epidemiological data from 2017 revealed that as high as 25.8 women per 1 lakh Indian women develop breast cancer and 12.7 women succumb to death from the disease. Genetic predisposition or inheritance of specific genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 increase the risk. However, poor lifestyle and obesity are two major risk factors for breast cancer, particularly those who are menopausal.

Medical research has identified smoking and drinking alcohol as two major lifestyle factors contributing to breast cancer risk. Moreover, a high-sugar, Western diet consisting ultra processed foods, unhealthy fats, and additives is also linked to the disease, according to a comprehensive review from 2019.

Also read: Green tea is good for your health but marketing makes it seem like a ‘superfood’. It’s not

Inflammation, diet, and breast cancer

Inflammation is an outcome of white blood cells and their byproducts reacting to foreign pathological infections to protect the body. A myriad of recent research has revealed that both acute and chronic inflammation are responsible for multiple health hazards, including breast cancer. Foods that are typically loaded with transfat, processed meat, sugar, artificial preservatives, and synthetic colours are known as pro-inflammatory diets. On the other hand, a whole foods-based balanced diet containing fruits, green vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, colourful other vegetables, and probiotics is anti-inflammatory in nature.

However, we need to remember that breast cancer is caused by multiple factors, and junk food consumption is just one of them. Annual health checkups such as mammography and manual breast health screening are advised to ensure early diagnosis and medical intervention.

Also read: 1 in 7 women aged 50-74 who undergo mammogram ‘overdiagnosed’ for breast cancer, finds US study

What you can add to your plate

An anti-inflammatory diet consists of a variety of nutritious whole foods. Green leafy vegetables are an important part of an anti-inflammatory diet. Spinach, cabbage, mustard green, red cabbage, fenugreek, and colocasia are abundant in India and high in various antioxidants, folate, and iron – all of which have excellent anti-inflammatory properties. Anti-cancerous antioxidants like lutein, beta carotene, and zeaxanthin are associated with a reduced risk of developing breast cancer.

Fatty fish such as salmon, basa, mackerel, sardines come next in an anti-inflammatory diet list. These are excellent sources of omega 3 – an essential fatty acid that prevents inflammation and oxidative stress injury. These fishes are also high in selenium, an essential-antioxidant micronutrient that is found to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Berries and citrus fruits are two common anti-inflammatory foods that provide essential antioxidants such as Vitamin C, anthocyanin, and flavonoids. These antioxidants are found to prevent cellular damage, development, and progress of cancer cells. Other than Vitamin C, berries also provide other antioxidants – quercetin, hesperetin, and naringenin that are anti-inflammatory as well as anticancerous.

Eat fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso that are rich in probiotics, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to support overall health and reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Other anti-inflammatory foods are spices such as turmeric, garlic, and onion. These are also known as allium vegetables and are excellent sources of organosulfur antioxidant compounds. A hospital-based matched case-control study from 2016 found that high consumption of garlic and leek might be associated with a lower risk of breast cancer. Similarly, another 2020 case-control study from Puerto Rico found that high and moderate consumption of garlic and leek were linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer among the participants.

Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower are also excellent anti-inflammatory foods that help to reduce the risk of breast cancer. The glucosinolate compounds present in cruciferous veggies have anti-cancerous properties.

It is also important to avoid or limit pro-inflammatory foods such as deep-fried foods, processed meat, refined carbs, alcohol, and sugary drinks. Regular physical activity, sound sleep, stress management, and work-life balance are also recommended along with a healthy, whole foods-based balanced diet to ensure overall wellbeing for women. Cancer has a complex etiology and involves multiple contributing factors. However, a healthy eating habit, including fatty fish, vegetables, whole fruits, probiotics, can be beneficial to lower the risk of breast cancer among women and ensure optimum nutritional status at the same time.

Dr Subhasree Ray is Doctoral Scholar (Ketogenic Diet), a certified diabetes educator, and a clinical and public health nutritionist. She tweets @DrSubhasree. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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