Today’s fad diets seem to be defined by what you’re no longer allowed to eat. The plant-based diet, also called the whole-foods plant-based diet, or a WFPB diet for short, is a little different (and may we say a breath of fresh air?). This way of looking at food (because the word “diet” doesn’t quite capture it) focuses on abundance, and adding more to your plate—more fruits, more vegetables, more beans, more grains, more nuts, more vegan protein—basically more plants!
While vegetarian (meat-free) and vegan (animal product-free) diets do fit under the plant-based umbrella, many whole-foods plant-based fans prefer this abundant and less-restrictive way of looking at food, often calling their diet “flexitarian.” Meat and dairy are not forbidden, but are simply downgraded to less important meal components, sometimes as condiments, sides, add-ins or often skipped altogether in exchange for a Meatless Monday meal. Ambassadors of plant-based meals always get their fruit and vegetable servings in (5 servings or 2.5 cups according to the American Cancer Society), sticking to and even surpassing FDA’s My Plate dietary guidelines, which call for 50% of the plate to be filled with fruits and vegetables.
Whole-foods plant-based diets can help improve blood pressure (1), cardiovascular health (2), cholesterol levels (3), diabetes risk (4), weight loss efforts (5), the risk of stroke (6), Alzheimer’s risk (7) and simply keep you alive longer (2). And if that’s not enough, WFPB diets can also significantly improve our cancer risk, and specifically, our breast cancer risk levels (8). Here’s four ways:
Obesity is a major risk factorAnything that increases or decreases a person’s chance of developing a disease. for breast cancer and something we talk about in our breast health programs as an important way you can take action to control your own breast cancer risk levels. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute, as compared to normal weight women, post-menopausal women who are obese have an increased risk for breast cancer by 20-40% (9). If you’re looking to lose weight, a plant-based diet is a healthy and effective option. Studies have shown significantly more weight loss on both vegetarian and vegan diets, compared to non-vegetarian diets (10).
What’s more, plant-based diets are beneficial for long-term weight maintenance as well. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that participants who had adopted a vegetarian lifestyle for 3 years weighed an average of 33 lbs. less than their non-vegetarian counterparts (11).
Another powerful way to fight breast cancer is by increasing fiber intake. Fiber is a two-for-one, helping to reduce the risk of obesity by keeping us fuller for longer, and offering protective benefits in its own right. A meta-analysis published in early 2020 analyzed data from 20 previous studies and found that women who consumed the most fiber had an 8% reduced risk of breast cancer. This risk reduction proved true for both premenopausal and postmenopausal women (12).
One of the easiest ways to increase fiber intake is by adopting a plant-based diet. On average, vegetarians and vegans eat 34-41 grams of fiber daily, while those who eat both plants and meat only eat an average of 27 grams (13). But regardless of your diet, always aim to reach the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of fiber: 25-34g for adults, depending on sex and age (14).
2. Saturated Fat
The link between dietary fat in general and breast cancer is still inconclusive. Most studies do agree, however, that saturated fat in particular increases breast cancer risk, as much as 33% in postmenopausal women who consume the most (15). No matter your diet, the RDA for saturated fat is no more than 10% of our daily calories, which comes out to 22g for those on a 2000 calorie diet (14).
Good news is that a plant-based diet, especially a vegan diet, can dramatically cut saturated fat intake. One 2014 study tracked the diet of over 1400 people, divided into vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, and omnivore groups. While the omnivore group averaged 54g of saturated fat per day, the vegetarian and vegan groups averaged 41g and 21g respectively. And don’t discount partial vegetarianism (“flexitarianism”)! Even the pesco-vegetarian and semi-vegetarian groups were able to cut their saturated fat intake to 43g and 47g (13).
4. Phytochemicals & Antioxidants
Phytochemicals are naturally occurring compounds found in plants (“phyto” comes from the Greek “phyton” meaning “plant”). After drugs like tamoxifen and raloxifene were shown to have promising cancer-prevention properties, scientists began to explore dietary compounds, too. According to a 2019 study, natural phytochemicals like capsaicin, cucurbitacin B, isoflavones, catechins, lycopenes, benzyl isothiocyanate, phenethyl isothiocyanate, and piperlongumine were all found to reduce one’s risk of breast cancer (16).
You can get more of these cancer-fighting ingredients by adding these plant-based foods to your diet:
- Capsaicin—chili peppers
- Catechins—green tea
- Phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC)—cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussel sprouts
- Lycopene— Tomatoes, papaya, watermelon, pink grapefruit, pink guava, red carrot and other red fruits and vegetables
- Isoflavones— soy, lentils, beans, and chickpeas
“Phytochemicals are tough to track,” explains Gina DeLuca, a Registered Dietitian for Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Winthrop Hospital. “I tell my patients one of the easiest ways to make sure you’re getting all the phytochemicals you need is to eat all the colors of the rainbow.”
Scientists are just beginning to explore the medical benefits of phytochemicals, but we do know that a subset of phytochemicals, called antioxidants, has clear anti-cancer properties. Antioxidants are nutrients, such as Vitamin A, C and E, which neutralize free radicals, unstable particles found all around us that can cause a host of diseases and cell dysfunctions including cancer. Consuming more plant-based antioxidants is a great way to reduce your risk of breast cancer while improving your diet at the same time.
The Bottom Line
The whole-foods plant-based diet is an extremely healthy option for nearly everyone, with a wealth of health benefits that stretch far outside the realm of cancer prevention. It is also one of the easiest diets to ease into. There is no “cold turkey” on the ice cream or steak. Take it in steps! Simply add an extra serving of veggies to your plate at dinner and you are officially eating more plant-based. Start exploring more plant-based foods today. Your breast health, waistline, and body in general will thank you for it!
- “Vegetarian diet reduces the risk of hypertension independent of abdominal obesity and inflammation: a prospective study,” Journal of Hypertension, 2016
- “Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults,” Journal of the American Heart Association, 2019
- “Effects of Plant-Based Diets on Plasma Lipids,” The American Journal of Cardiology, 2009
- “Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies,” PLOS Medicine, 2016
- “The BROAD study: A randomised controlled trial using a whole food plant-based diet in the community for obesity, ischaemic heart disease or diabetes,” Nutrition & Diabetes, 2017
- “Fruits and vegetables consumption and risk of stroke: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies,” Stroke, 2014
- “Increased Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables Is Related to a Reduced Risk of Cognitive Impairment and Dementia: Meta-Analysis,” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 2017
- “Vegan Diet: Highest in Fiber and Lowest in Saturated Fat,” American Institute for Cancer Research
- “Obesity and Cancer,” National Cancer Institute
- “Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials,” Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2016
- “Plasma Lipids and Lipoproteins in Vegetarians and Controls,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 1975
- “Fiber consumption and breast cancer incidenceIncidence refers to the occurrence of new cases of disease or injury in a population over a specified period of time.: A systematic review and meta‐analysis of prospective studies,” Cancer, 2020
- “Comparison of Nutritional Quality of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Semi-Vegetarian, Pesco-Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diet,” Nutrients, 2014
- “Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- “Meta-Analysis of Saturated Fatty Acid Intake and Breast Cancer Risk,” Medicine, 2015
- “Role of Phytochemicals in Chemoprevention,” International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 2019