Mary Flynn, PhD, a research dietitian at the Miriam Hospital and assistant professor at Brown Medical School, explains in her book, The Pink Ribbon Diet: A Revolutionary New Weight Loss Plan to Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk what foods should be eaten every day and which foods should be avoided.
Commitmentnow.com: Can the wrong foods really impact a woman's chance of getting cancer?
Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN: Yes, I think there are foods that will increase your risk of cancer based upon what these foods will do to risk factors for cancer. I don’t know if we will ever get to the day when we will be able to say; eat this and you wouldn’t get cancer or eat this and you will. But I think there is enough evidence to make some more specific recommendations.
Commitmentnow.com: What would you consider to be the worst foods that promote cancer within the body?
Dr. Flynn: Two groups of food that I think should be avoided or at least minimized to help decrease breast cancer risk are:
Vegetable oils: soybean, safflower, corn and products made with them, like margarine, mayonnaise and most commercial salad dressings.
Polyunsaturated fats increase oxidation. Oxidation occurs when we use oxygen and as we need oxygen to live, we can’t stop oxidation. Oxidation makes free radicals which can attack cell membranes, which can let cancers out or DNA and make unhealthy DNA, increasing cancer risk. While we cannot stop oxidation, anything we do to decrease the level of oxidation, will decrease cancer risk. Polyunsaturated fats directly increase oxidation so avoiding them minimizes the level of oxidation.
Red meat, especially if it is grilled. The charred part of grilled meat is heterocyclic amines (HCA’s) which have been shown to start cancer. HCA’s are thought to work similar to the way nicotine leads to cancer. But, even if meat is not grilled, there are components in meat that will increase cancer risk. For instance, red meat contains an amino acid that can increase oxidation when it is metabolized and others that can stimulate insulin secretion.
Red meat also contains the polyunsaturated fat, arachidonic acid, a fat that will oxidize but also studies in test tubes have shown it can encourage hormone sensitive tumor growth.
The Ten Foods Dr. Flynn Recommends Women Include In Their Diet To Lower Their Breast Cancer Risk:
• Extra virgin olive oil
• Spinach and other leafy dark greens, like kale and collard greens.
• Canned tomatoes
• Beans/ legumes: cannellini, black, ceci
• Canned fruit
• Nuts – walnuts and almonds
• Whole wheat pasta
• Brown rice
Commitmentnow.com: Tell us about the healing power of olive oil and why this can lower one's risk of breast cancer.
Dr. Flynn: Extra virgin olive oil is a fascinating food. The health benefits are in the extra virgin variety of olive oil. This is the oil closest to the olive. Some of the reasons olive oil promotes health:
a. The main fat is monounsaturated fat. This type of fat does not oxidize so using olive oil instead of vegetable oil decreases the oxidation in the body.
b. It contains the highest amount of alpha tocopherol found in any oil; this is the form of vitamin E that acts as an antioxidant.
c. It contains a host of phytonutrients that act as antioxidants.
d. It contains squalene which is a tumor inhibitor
e. It contains lignins; lignans have been related to decreasing breast cancer risk by inhibiting or delaying growth of breast cancer
f. One of the phytonutrients in olive oil, oleocanthal, works like a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), which would decrease breast cancer risk.
g. Extra virgin olive oil makes insulin work better, so blood insulin levels are lower; higher levels of blood insulin have been related to an increase risk of breast cancer.
h. Olive oil makes vegetables taste better, especially the bitter ones like spinach and broccoli so using olive oil to prepare vegetables can increases the likelihood of them being eaten.
i. Fat is needed to absorb carotenoids, which are the deep color in vegetables and fruits. Some of the carotenoids fight cancer by working on cell communicationby keeping the gap junctions between cells open.
j. Fat also helps to absorb the indole glucosinolates, a family of phytonutrients found in the cruciferous or cabbage family; this phytonutrient can shift the metabolism of estrogen so that the form made does not drive breast cancer.
Commitmentnow.com: What are some ways to incorporate olive oil into our diet on a daily basis?
a. Use it for all meal preparation, but especially to cook vegetables. Olive oil will make vegetables taste better and will also make them healthier as it increases the absorption of the carotenoids, which fight cancer and indole glucosinolates, which shift estrogen metabolism so that the form made does not drive breast cancer. My rule of thumb for vegetable preparation is 1 tablespoon of olive oil per cup of vegtables.
b. Use olive oil on salads. You can add vinegar or lemon juice, but I think the olive oil by itself tastes best.
c. Dip bread into olive for a healthy snack or with a salad. I sometimes add black pepper or grated cheese to the olive oil.
d. Use olive oil for any recipe that calls for vegetable oil, even for baking. The taste will not be apparent once the baked good is cooked.
Commitmentnow.com: What are the best vegetables to eat to reduce breast cancer risk?
Dr. Flynn: Any vegetables that are dark in color (as the color is from carotenoids). For this reason, I encourage the use of frozen or canned produce. Produce that is frozen or canned is kept on the plant longer than what most ‘fresh’ produce has been.
Some of the healthier carotenoid containing vegetables are broccoli, carrots, spinach and other dark leafy greens, winter squash, and sweet potatoes.
The other healthy group of vegetables are those in the cruciferous or cabbage family: broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, kale, etc. These contain the phytonutrient, indole glucosinolate, which can shift the metabolism of estrogen to make a form that does not drive breast cancer.
Commitmentnow.com: What ingredients do you recommend every women keep in her pantry if she wants to eat a healthier diet?
Dr. Flynn: Extra virgin olive oil, nuts (almonds, walnuts), canned beans, canned fruit packed in water or juice, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and whole wheat flour for making muffins and quick breads [if you are including the freezer, I would add frozen vegetables].
Here are Dr. Flynn's Recommendations for An Ideal Breakfast: 1 to 2 whole grain starch (toast, cereal); healthy fat: nuts or nut product (this can include peanut butter although it is a legume); fruit which is dark in color (can be canned); optional: yogurt, cheese, milk, egg
1 to 2 whole grain starch; olive oil; at least 2 servings of vegetables (salad or vegetables cooked in olive oil); fruit, if wanted; optional: legumes, eggs.
I would prefer people did not snack for a couple of reasons. One is that we are more efficient at trapping calories when we eat smaller amounts of food versus large amounts.
The other is that eating leads to insulin being secreted. Insulin is a storage hormone and once it has stored nutrients from a meal, blood levels decrease. You want to have insulin levels decrease throughout the day as lower levels allow fat to be released from fat stores so you will use your own fat for energy when insulin is low. Also, higher levels of blood insulin have been related to increasing breast cancer risk so you want to have lower levels throughout the day.
Like lunch: whole grain starch, olive oil, at least 2 servings of vegetables; optional: legumes.
Commitmentnow.com: Can you share one of your favorite soup recipes with us?
Dr. Flynn: Lentil with brown rice
Commitmentnow.com: What are the biggest mistakes women make when it comes to cooking and eating? And what advice do you have regarding these mistakes?
Dr Flynn: I think that would be not using olive oil to prepare vegetables. Fat is needed to absorb carotenoids which are the deep color in vegetables and the phytonutrient indole glucosinolate, which is found in the cruciferous or cabbage family of vegetables. For at least the carotenoids, the more fat you use, the more carotenoids you absorb. I recommend a tablespoon of olive oil per cup of vegetables. Olive oil also makes vegetables taste so much better.
I have long said Americans tend to boil or steam vegetables, which is the least tasty way to prepare them and also less healthy as you are not able to absorb what makes them healthy.
Commitmentnow.com: How have you changed your eating habits due to writing this book, and what do you eat on a daily basis to keep yourself healthy?
Dr. Flynn: The diet I describe in The Pink Ribbon Diet is the way I eat and have been eating for more than 15 years. I have always liked vegetables and tended more towards a plant based diet since I was in college (the 1970’s).
I was not raised on extra virgin olive oil, but I remember as a child thinking some Italian meals tasted better than others which I think was when olive oil was used. I have been using olive oil daily (at least 3 tablespoons and usually more) for at least the past 12 years.
I do use cheese and yogurt and I have seafood probably twice a month. The only recipes in the book that are not mine are the poultry ones (my co-author Nancy Verde Barr contributed the poultry recipes). All of the other recipes are ones I made for myself and then wrote down.
To Purchase The Pink Ribbon Diet click here.
About the Authors: Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN, is a research dietian at the Miriam Hospital and Assistant Professor of Medicine in Research at Brown University. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Nancy Verde Barr served as executive chef to Julia Child and is a James Beard Book Award-winning cookbook author. She lives in North Dighton, Massachusetts.