Every few months, Julia Trow whips through her pantry and refrigerator, chucking the latest food that a study in some far-off country labeled as higher risk for causing cancer.
“I’m obsessed,” said Trow, a middle-aged mother of three with a family history of breast cancer. “My friends send me links to studies about how this food or that food can increase your risk of getting breast cancer. It’s scary. We try to eat as healthy as possible with three teenagers around, but now healthy foods are bad, even asparagus.”
Earlier this year, a study by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center found that a single protein building block that is commonly found in food may be linked to a higher rate of a deadly form of breast cancer. Asparagine is an amino acid that is found in a laundry list of healthy foods, including dairy, whey, beef, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood, potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy, whole grains and, of course, asparagus. Foods that are low in asparagine include most fruits and vegetables.
“There are so many studies on soy, meat, now asparagus, that say that food causes cancer,” Trow said. “It’s too crazy to keep up with.”
Dr. Matthew Schwartz, a radiation oncologist for Comprehensive Cancer Centers, agrees. “From a reader’s point of view, it’s very confusing,” he said. “My simplest recommendation for lowering your risk is lifestyle and diet. If you are smoking, quit smoking. That is the biggest preventable thing you can do. That and try to eat a healthy diet in moderation, exercise regularly, get a good night’s sleep. And don’t worry.”
The longtime local and radiation specialist began exploring the many studies that link diet to breast cancer last year. He found many of the studies needed more research to be validated.
“There are many studies that find that there is a slight increase of a lot of different cancers if you eat meat,” Schwartz, a UNLV alum, said. “What it is more than likely is that if you eat certain types of meats with preservatives you have a higher risk, and that risk is very, very small.”
The meat isn’t the culprit as much as the overall diet that a patient consumes, particularly if they have a genetic connection to cancer.
“A good diet and active lifestyle with a lot of variety of whole foods will reduce your risk of cancer simply by keeping your weight down,” Schwartz said.
He doesn’t believe there is one or a group of bad foods, such as asparagus or soy, although processed foods are much more likely to lead to weight gain. Rather, it’s about the overall diet a patient consumes.
An increase in fat cells also increases female hormones, such as estrogen, in both men and women. Estrogen exposure is thought to raise the risk of cancer. For instance, consumption of too much soy can slightly increase cancer risk, particularly in women who have a higher rate of estrogen.
The clearest link to breast cancer or most cancers, however, can be tied to the number on the scale. “If you are obese your risk is significantly increased,” Schwartz said. “There are billions of cells in the body, and they are constantly replenishing themselves. Every time they replicate and make a new one there is a very small chance of an error occurring. The more cells there are the more chance there is of making a mistake when duplicating.”
It’s not all bad news. The World Health Initiative Observational Study found that postmenopausal women who lost weight lowered their risk of developing invasive breast cancer compared with those who just maintained an unhealthy weight or gained more weight after menopause.
“Just by keeping your weight down you will lower your chance of a cancer diagnosis,” Schwartz said. “And that’s what we all want.”