Any woman who has had breast cancer could tell you about the importance of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight to help reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence – the problem is that in the quest to lose weight women can become vulnerable to the emotional pull of fad diet advertising and testimonials – and may, in fact be doing more harm than good.

What should women look for in a diet post breast cancer?

Although research has not yet been able to isolate any particular foods that are particular magic bullets or forbidden no no’s, there are a few key principles that are recommended:
1.Ample fruits and vegetables – studies indicate time and time again that fruit and vegetable consumption is protective against breast cancer as well as a range of other cancers. Avoid any diet that recommends cutting out fruit or vegetables.
2.Low glycemic index – recent evidence suggests that diets with a low glycemic index are more protective against breast cancer than those with a high glycemic index
3.Minimal alcohol – Alcohol is the best established dietary risk factor for breast cancer, probably because it increases estrogen levels.
4.Low in fat – although still under debate, current findings suggest that diets lower in fat are more protective against breast cancer. Avoid diets which encourage consumption of high fat foods such as bacon or cream.
5.Appropriate portions of meat – Several population studies have shown a relationship between breast cancer and meat intake. Whilst low carbohydrate, high protein diets may be in fashion, women post breast cancer should be aware of diets which encourage a large intake of meat.

Three of the best

1. The Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is a diet that was devised by Dr Willett from Harvard University. It is based on the dietary consumption of Greeks and Italians circa 1960 and recommends a large consumption of vegetables, legumes and grains, fruit for dessert daily, moderate portions of dairy foods, olive oil, wine, fish and poultry and a low intake of red meat. The concept behind the diet is that by filling up on nutrient-rich, satiating foods such as legumes and wholegrains, you are likely to consume smaller portion sizes of higher kilojoule foods such as red meat or processed foods.

What’s good about it?
Research suggests that in addition to being protective against heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, the olive oil, fish consumption and low meat intake of the Mediterranean diet may also be protective against breast cancer. It also includes all of the core food groups and it is rich in nutrition and antioxidants.

What are its weaknesses?
This diet will only result in weight loss if you decrease your total kilojoule intake, and it doesn’t teach you how to decrease your kilojoule intake. It also doesn’t provide any guidelines about portion size, so it is possible to consume this diet without losing weight. The Mediterranean diet can also be too high in salt for some people who have high blood pressure.

2. The Low Glycemic Index Diet

The principal behind the Low GI diet is that foods with a low GI, such as multigrain bread, yoghurt and apples, break down more slowly, and keep you feeling fuller for longer, so overall you require less food.

What’s good about it?
This diet is more of a style of eating than a structured fad diet. It focuses on nutritious, filling foods. A number of recent studies show that people who consume a low GI diet are less likely to develop breast cancer – so beware of misleading marketing.

What are its weaknesses?
It can be difficult to know the GI of some foods as many foods do not have their GI value written on the label. Some foods with a low GI can also be high in fat, such as chocolate and ice cream.

3. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating Diet

This diet provides a nutritious guide to the types of foods people should be eating. Based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines, it provides a guide to the portion sizes of cereals, fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat (and meat alternatives) and treat foods we should be consuming each day.

What’s good about it?
This diet reflects all of the current dietary advice recommended for avoiding breast cancer – it recommends appropriate sized portions of meats, ample fruit and vegetables and an appropriate number of kilojoules. It is based on a typical Aussie diet so there’s no hard to find foods. It recommends food groups as opposed to “good” and “bad” foods, so if there’s a food that you don’t like, you can choose something else from the group.

What are its weaknesses?
It doesn’t explain much about the types of fats that you should choose or how often you should choose different types of protein foods (ie. how often should you choose red meat??). This diet is currently under revision and a new version will be out in the next few years.

Three of the worst

1. The Cabbage Soup Diet

This diet is based on following a strict regime where you are not allowed to eat anything except for one particular food each day, and unlimited amounts of cabbage soup.

What’s so bad about it?
This is the ultimate fad diet. It causes fast weight loss, but is unsustainable and you will regain all of the weight within a week. It is very bad for your health as it will deprive your body of vital nutrients, is too high in salt and will slow down your metabolism as your body will actually have to break down muscle to get the protein that your body requires to function. Stay away!

Has it got any strengths?
The concept behind filling up on a low starch vegetable soup between meals is a good one. Low starch vegetable soup is low in kilojoules and rich in antioxidants and makes a tasty between meal snack in Winter. It is rich in vegetables which are likely to be protective against breast cancer.

2. The Lemon Detox Diet

The concept behind the Lemon Detox Diet is that you only consume liquid foods and that you have a special lemon drink at each meal which is purported to “flush out toxins”.

What’s so bad about it?
The diet cuts out all food – so you are not receiving any nutrients! It is low in protein, omega 3, calcium, magnesium, folate, iron, magnesium, zinc, riboflavin, vitamin E, vitamin K, fibre….. Need I say more? One more thing – it is based on a dodgy philosophy – your body doesn’t “need a break” from food. The liver is a miraculous organ specifically designed to break down and excrete toxins.

Has it got any strengths?
It encourages you to drink lots of water which is great for hydration.

3. The Atkins Diet

The Atkins diet cuts out all foods containing carbohydrates. It works by depleting your carbohydrate stores so that your body goes into a state called ketosis which means that your body has to break down fat and or muscle for energy.

What’s so bad about it?
Carbohydrates are found in many nutritious foods such as milk and fruit, so by cutting out all carbohydrates, you miss out on essential nutrients. It is also high in fat which isn’t good for your heart, and too high in protein which can put strain on your kidneys. It is also very high in meat which may be a risk factor for breast cancer.

Has it got any strengths?
The latest version of this diet now encourages you to include lots of low starch vegetables into your diet. It also teaches you about portion sizes, and the latest version does reintroduce carbohydrates back into your diet when you hit “phase 2”.

The best way to lose weight post breast cancer

Although some diets may be better than others, achieving and maintaining a healthy diet takes more than following a repetitive three week meal schedule or collecting your box of ready to eat frozen meals – you need a whole new food philosophy! Avoid the hype, the hard sell and the temptation of “melting away fat before your eyes”, and go back to basics. Learn how to cook fresh meals, decode food labels, meet your individual nutritional requirements, make healthy choices when eating out and design your own nutritionally balanced meal plans. If you need help, consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian who can teach and empower you to improve the way you eat.