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Will a healthy diet help breast cancer from recurring?

A diet that is high in vegetables, fruit and fiber and low in fat is good for heart health, brain health, weight health  and  intestinal health, but can it help a recently diagnosed woman fight this disease? Dr. Judith Reichman has the answer.
/ Source: TODAY

Q: I've been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. I've had a lumpectomy, radiation, and I'm currently on an anti-estrogen pill. Will nutritional changes help me beat this disease?A: We consider a healthy diet to be one that is high in vegetables, fruit and fiber, and low in fat. Indeed, this type of nutrition seems to be good for heart health, brain health, weight health, and now we have more data that it's also good for intestinal health.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) looked at individuals with stage 3 colon cancer who were treated with surgery and chemotherapy. There was a greater disease-free survival and overall survival rate in those who followed this type of diet versus one that was high in meat, fat, refined grains and dessert. (The latter sounds like the meals at most of my local fast-food restaurants!)

However, the same results were not found in a recent trial that looked at women who survived early stage breast cancer. A relevant study also published in JAMA (I read this journal weekly and can't help but cite their more important articles) followed 3,088 women treated for early stage breast cancer for more than seven years.

One group of women (the intervention group) was intensively taught (and cajoled) to follow a diet that consisted of five vegetable servings plus 16 ounces of vegetable juice, three fruit servings and 30 grams of fiber. They were also limited to 15 to 20 percent energy intake from fat sources. The investigators checked to make sure that the women were following this diet by measuring the carotenoid levels in their blood (which parallel fruit and vegetable intake). They also checked up on these women during cooking classes, reminded them through newsletters and had them write food diaries. The other group of women received “just” print materials describing the 5-A-Day diet, which is based on five or more servings of fruit and vegetables a day, but they were not as closely followed (and certainly were not harassed).

The researchers found that at four years the difference in intake between the “eat right” group and the other group was +65 percent for the vegetable servings, +25 percent for the fruit servings, +30 percent for fiber and -13 percent for energy intake from fat. (In other words, they ate significantly more of the good stuff and less of the bad.) They also ate 80 calories per day less. As proof of their fruit and vegetable intake, blood tests confirmed that they had carotenoid concentrations that were 73 percent higher than the control group after one year and 43 percent higher at four years. Finally, the intervention group’s cholesterol tests improved when compared to the controls. Despite these beneficial changes, there was no additional reduction in breast cancer events or mortality in the 7.3-year follow-up period.

I know that in my columns I usually highlight positive studies and heap on reasons to eat a healthy diet, but to be fair I should also report on the “they didn't find it made any difference” studies. However, this 7.3-year follow-up doesn't rule out the possibility that a healthy diet will have a longer-term survival effect. So just maybe the report will change in the years to come.

Dr. Reichman’s Bottom Line: A recent study showed no evidence that eating a diet high in fruit, vegetables and fiber and low in fat versus the “5-A-Day" diet prevents breast cancer recurrence and death in women who have been treated for early stage breast cancer. On the other hand, this diet does protect against other significant diseases. (We have to remember there's more to our health than our breasts.)

Dr. Judith Reichman, the TODAY show’s medical contributor on women’s health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You will find many answers to your questions in her latest book, “Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You,” which is now available in paperback. It is published by William Morrow, a division of .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.