Can Eating More Fruits and Veggies Thwart Aggressive Breast Cancer?

A healthy diet that emphasizes plant-based foods may have far-reaching benefits.

A fresh bowl of kale salad accented with fresh mango and pomegranate seeds

Medically reviewed in May 2022

Updated on May 9, 2022

Here’s another reason to get your daily dose of produce: Your risk of certain types of breast cancer may be cut by adding more whole fruits and vegetables to your diet.

A 2021 review of previous research published in the British Journal of Cancer found that eating lots of whole fruits and vegetables may drop the risk of ER-/PR- breast cancer by up to 26 percent.  

This form of breast cancer is called hormone receptor negative (or simply receptor negative) because the tumor cells lack receptor proteins that bind to estrogen (ER) and progesterone (PR). These cancers tend to grow faster and act more aggressive than breast tumors that have these proteins (known as ER+/PR+ breast cancer). Receptor negative breast cancer also occurs more often in younger, pre-menopausal women.

In addition to lowering the risk of receptor negative breast cancer, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the University of Toronto found that eating high levels of whole fruits and vegetables was associated with lower overall and postmenopausal breast cancer risk. It was also associated with 11 percent lower risk of ER+/PR+ breast cancer, the most common type of breast cancer. This type of breast cancer accounts for about 70 percent of breast cancers in females and 80 to 90 percent of breast cancers in males.

Past studies have also found an association between fruits and vegetables and risk for aggressive breast cancer. One 2019 study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables was associated with about 21 percent decreased risk of HER2 breast cancer. (About 20 percent of breast tumor cells have the HER2 gene, which makes them grow faster and spread more quickly.)

Consider your sips, too
While you’re infusing your diet with healthy greens and seasonal fruit, you might want to revamp your beverage choices, too.

Results from the British Journal of Cancer study showed that drinking fruit juice was associated with a slightly increased risk (about 4 percent) of breast cancer. Researchers think that’s because fruit juice contains a lot of sugar, which can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes and may make it harder to manage your weight. Both diabetes and being overweight can increase inflammation in your body, which may increase your risk for breast cancer.

Choose whole fruit and water instead of juice. It can help you feel fuller—while also satisfying your sweet tooth—and may even help to decrease your risk for breast cancer.

The added benefits of fiber and antioxidants
Researchers think whole fruits and veggies may help protect against breast cancer because they’re high in fiber and antioxidants. That, in turn, may help your body function more optimally to decrease tumor cell development. Antioxidants may also help thwart cancer-causing oxidative damage to DNA.

Increasing consumption of whole fruits and veggies should be part of an overall healthy diet that limits processed foods high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat in favor of whole foods and heart healthy fats like olive oil.

Article sources open article sources

Farvid, M.S., Barnett, J.B. & Spence, N.D. Fruit and vegetable consumption and incident breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Br J Cancer 125, 284–298 (2021).
American Cancer Society. Breast cancer hormone receptor status, Last reviewed Nov 8, 2021.
Farvid MS, Chen WY, Rosner BA, Tamimi RM, Willett WC, Eliassen AH. Fruit and vegetable consumption and breast cancer incidence: Repeated measures over 30 years of follow-up. Int J Cancer. 2019;144(7):1496-1510.
National Library of Medicine Medline Plus. Estrogen Receptor, Progesterone Receptor Tests. Page updated Sept 29 2021.

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