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Nutrition, Exercise and Alcohol: Key Players in Breast Cancer Risk

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Nutrition, Exercise and Alcohol: Key Players in Breast Cancer Risk

One in eight women in the United States (about 12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer at some point during her lifetime. Some breast cancer risk factors cannot be modified, such as inheriting BRCA-1 or other cancer genes, which account for only about 5-10 percent of all breast cancers according to American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). On an empowering note, AICR states approximately one third of breast cancers in the U.S. can be prevented if women maintain a healthy body weight throughout their lives, stay physically active and avoid alcohol.

Many studies have consistently found overweight postmenopausal women are at a greater risk for developing breast cancer. Women who were classified as the most obese are at approximately double the risk of the most common type of breast tumors, including ER-positive and PR-positive.

Physical activity has been shown to decrease risk of breast cancer after menopause. American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) suggests postmenopausal women who participate in regular physical activity (equal to at least four hours of walking per week) have a 10 percent lower risk for invasive breast cancer when compared to women who are less active. These benefits quickly disappear if regular activity discontinues.

The most convincing evidence related to diet is high alcohol consumption increases breast cancer risk. Susan G. Komen organization pooled data from 53 studies and found, “for each alcoholic drink consumed per day, the relative risk of breast cancer increased by about 7 percent.” This translates to a 20 percent higher risk in those who had two to three servings of alcohol per day.

Here are some practical, doable approaches that address nutrition, physical activity and alcohol consumption, ultimately helping you manage your weight and reduce your risk of breast cancer.

Nutrition Tips

  • Track what you eat. This is a powerful tool to keep you mindful, accountable and focused. My Fitness Pal is a great app for your phone or computer.

  • Try the Mediterranean diet, which includes extra virgin olive oil, as research suggests it may help prevent breast cancer. This is a balanced, sustainable dietary pattern focused on antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds and heart-healthy fats. Especially protective are vegetables and fruits high in alpha- and beta- carotene, which include:

    • Pumpkin
    • Carrots
    • Winter squash
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Spinach
    • Kale
    • Collards, turnip greens and other leafy greens
    • Romaine and leaf lettuce
    • Cantaloupe
    • Apricots
    • Bell peppers
    • Broccoli
    • Green peas
  • Plan snacks to avoid excess hunger at meals, especially at dinner. Pair a protein source (such as Greek yogurt, 2% cottage cheese, reduced-fat cheese, nuts or nut butters or a boiled egg) with colorful vegetables or fruits. If calories allow, add a whole grain, but first include a fruit or vegetable.

Exercise Tips

  • Simply said, the best type of exercise is the one you can and will do. If you dislike running but enjoy walking, set a goal to walk a specific number of days and minutes per week and gradually increase your pace as you become more fit. 

  • If you find it more enjoyable and motivating to be active with a group or a buddy, look into group classes or make a date with an exercise partner. This can keep you accountable and push you a bit harder than you would on your own.

  • Consider creative ways to fit activity into a busy day. Walking 15 minutes twice a day may be more realistic than 30 minutes at one time. Stand up and move around while waiting for an oil change or at your child’s sporting practice. Keep a gym bag in your car with athletic shoes and clothing to change into in case you find time to sneak in some activity.

Alcohol Consumption

  • Because alcohol increases breast cancer risk, reserve it for special occasions. If your habit is drinking wine every night, try savoring it in social settings only, allowing you to still enjoy it, but at times where it would be most appreciated.

  • At home, swap alcohol for a natural sparkling water like La Croix or Topo Chico mineral water. Add a flavor boost with 1-2 ounces of tart cherry juice, 100 percent pomegranate juice or 100 percent cranberry juice that offers a “shot” of antioxidants. Serve it in a beautiful glass or crystal stemware. Make this your new evening beverage of choice. You may also enjoy a cup of hot tea or decaffeinated herbal tea for a sense of relaxation without alcohol. 

  • Try winding down with yoga in the evening…it can be almost as relaxing as a cocktail!

For more information about Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services, visit or call 972.560.2655.

Article written by Cooper Clinic Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Cynthanne Duryea, RDN, LD, who is a breast cancer survivor. She is passionate about helping others with nutrition and lifestyle changes that may powerfully reduce cancer risk.