Does Soy Increase Breast Cancer Risk?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Soy and Breast Cancer

What Does the Latest Study Say?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

does soy increase breast cancer riskDoes soy increase breast cancer risk?

“To soy or not to soy. That is the question.” If you are a woman, particularly a woman with breast cancer, it is an important question. Some experts say soy should be avoided at all costs. They say that soy will increase your risk of breast cancer. Other experts say soy is perfectly safe and may even reduce your risk of breast cancer.

If you are a breast cancer survivor, the question of whether soy increases or decreases your risk of disease recurrence is even more crucial. You have already endured surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation. You never want to go through that again.

 

Why Is There So Much Confusion About Soy?

soy confusionSoy isoflavones decrease estrogen production, strengthen the immune system, inhibit cell proliferation, and reduce the production of reactive oxygen species. These are all effects that might reduce breast cancer risk.

On the other hand, soy isoflavones also bind to estrogen receptors and exhibit weak estrogenic activity. This effect has the potential to increase breast cancer risk.

Cell culture and animal studies have only confused the issue. Soy isoflavones stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells in a petri dish. Soy isoflavones also stimulate breast cancer growth in a special strain of mice lacking an immune system. However, in studies in both mice and rats with a functioning immune system, soy isoflavones decreased breast cancer risk.

The confusion has been amplified by claims and counter-claims on the internet. There are bloggers who are more interested in the spectacular than they are in accuracy (Today we call this fake news). They have taken the very weak evidence that soy isoflavones could possibly increase breast cancer risk and have blown it all out of proportion.

Their blogs claimed that soy definitely increased breast cancer risk and should be avoided at all cost. Their claims were picked up by other web sites. Eventually, the claims were repeated so many times that people started to believe them. A “myth”was created.  I call it a myth, because it was never based on convincing scientific evidence.

In the meantime, scientists looked at the cell culture and animal studies and took a more responsible approach. They said “If this is true, it is an important public health issue. We need to do clinical trials in humans to test this hypothesis.”

It is easy to see why the general public still asks “Does soy increase breast cancer risk?”

 

breast cancer soyWhat Have Previous Clinical Studies Shown?

The question “Does soy increased breast cancer risk” was settled a long time ago. Some studies have shown no effect of soy consumption on breast cancer risk. Others have reported that soy consumption decreased breast cancer risk. A meta-analysis of 18 previous clinical studies found that soy slightly decreased the risk of developing breast cancer (J Natl Cancer Inst, 98: 459-471, 2006 Meta-Analysis-of-Soy-Intake-and-Breast-Cancer-Risk). None of those studies found any evidence that soy increased the risk of breast cancer.

What about recurrence of breast cancer in women who are breast cancer survivors? Between 2006 and 2013 there have been five major clinical studies (soy-and-breast-cancer-recurrence) looking at the effects of soy consumption on breast cancer recurrence in both Chinese and American populations. Once again, the studies have shown either no effect of soy on breast cancer recurrence or a protective effect. None of them have shown any detrimental effects of soy consumption for breast cancer survivors.

A meta-analysis of all 5 studies was published in 2013 (Chi et al, Asian Pac J Cancer Prev., 14: 2407-2412, 2013). This study combined the data from 11,206 breast cancer survivors in the US and China. Those with the highest soy consumption had a 23% decrease in recurrence and a 15% decrease in mortality from breast cancer.

 

breast cancer soy studyWhat Did The Latest Study Show?

In previous clinical studies the protective effect of soy has been greater in Asian populations than in North American populations. This could have been because Asians consume more soy. However, it could be due to other population differences as well. To better evaluate the effect of soy consumption on breast cancer survivors in the North America, this group of investigators correlated soy consumption with all-cause mortality in breast cancer survivors in the US and Canada (Zhang et al, Cancer, DOI: 10.1002/cncr.30615, March 2017).

The data was collected from The Breast Cancer Family Registry, an international research infrastructure established in 1995. The women enrolled in this registry either had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer or had a family history of breast cancer.

This study included 6235 breast cancer survivors from the registry who lived in the San Francisco Bay area and the province of Ontario in Canada. The women represented an ethnically diverse population and had a median age of 51.8 at enrollment.  Soy consumption was assessed either at the time of enrollment or immediately following breast cancer diagnosis. The women were followed for 9.4 years, during which time 1224 of them died.

The results were as follows:

  • There was a 21% decrease in all-cause mortality for women who had the highest soy consumption compared to those with the lowest soy consumption.
  • The protective effect of soy was strongest for those women who had receptor negative breast cancer. This is significant because receptor-negative breast cancer is associated with poorer survival rates than hormone receptor-positive cases.
  • The protective effect was also greatest (35% reduction in all-cause mortality) for women with the highest soy consumption following breast cancer diagnosis. This suggests that soy may play an important role in breast cancer survival.
  • The authors concluded “In this large, ethnically diverse cohort of women with breast cancer, higher dietary intake of [soy] was associated with reduced total mortality.”

In an accompanying editorial, Omer Kucuk, MD, of the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, noted that the United States is the number 1 soy producer in the world and is in a great position to initiate changes in health policy by encouraging soy intake.  He said “We now have evidence that soy foods not only prevent breast cancer but also benefit women who have breast cancer. Therefore, we can recommend women to consume soy foods because of soy’s many health benefits.”  In light of this study, has the question “Does soy increase breast cancer risk” been answered?

 

Does Soy Increase Breast Cancer Risk?

soy breast cancer mythEvery clinical study has its limitations. If there were only one or two studies, the question of whether soy increases breast cancer risk might still be in doubt. However, multiple clinical studies have come to the same conclusion. Either soy has no effect on breast cancer risk and breast cancer recurrence, or it has a protective effect.

Not a single clinical study has found any evidence that soy increases breast cancer risk. It is clear that consumption of soy foods is safe, and may be beneficial for women with breast cancer. The myth that soy increases breast cancer risk needs to be put to rest.

On the other hand, we should not think of soy as a miracle food. Breast cancer risk is also decreased by a diet that:

  • Contains lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Is low in processed grains & sweets and high in whole grains.
  • Is low in saturated & trans fats and high in omega-3 and monounsaturated fats.
  • Is low in red & processed meats and high in beans, fish & chicken.

Furthermore, diet is just one component of a holistic approach for reducing the risk of breast cancer. In addition to a healthy diet, the American Cancer Society recommends that you:

  • Control your weight
  • Be physically active
  • Limit alcohol
  • Don’t smoke
  • Limit hormone replacement therapy unless absolutely necessary.
  • Reduce stress

Does soy increase breast cancer risk?  No.

The Bottom Line

 

  • It is time to put the myth that soy increases breast cancer risk to rest. This myth is based on cell culture and animal studies, and those studies were inconclusive.
  • Multiple clinical studies have shown that soy either has no effect on breast cancer risk, or that it reduces the risk.
  • Multiple clinical studies have also shown that soy either has no effect on breast cancer recurrence in women who are breast cancer survivors, or that it reduces recurrence.
  • The latest clinical study is fully consistent with previous studies. It reports:
    • There was a 21% decrease in all-cause mortality for women who had the highest soy consumption compared to those with the lowest soy consumption.
    • The protective effect of soy was strongest for those women who had receptor negative breast cancer. This is significant because receptor-negative breast cancer is associated with poorer survival rates than hormone receptor-positive cases.
    • The protective effect was also greatest (35% reduction in all-cause mortality) for women with the highest soy consumption following breast cancer diagnosis. This suggests that soy may play an important role in breast cancer survival.
  • No clinical studies have provided any evidence to support the claim that soy increases either breast cancer risk or breast cancer recurrence.
  • On the other hand, we should not think of soy as a miracle food. Breast cancer risk is also decreased by a diet that:
    • Contains lots of fruits and vegetables.
    • Is low in processed grains & sweets and high in whole grains.
    • Is low in saturated & trans fats and high in omega-3 and monounsaturated fats.
    • Is low in red & processed meats and high in beans, fish & chicken
  • Furthermore, diet is just one component of a holistic approach for reducing the risk of breast cancer. In addition to a healthy diet, the American Cancer Society recommends that you:
    • Control your weight
    • Be physically active
    • Limit alcohol
    • Don’t smoke
    • Limit hormone replacement therapy unless absolutely necessary.
    • Reduce stress

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

Is Coconut Oil Bad For You?

Posted July 25, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Nutty About Coconut Oil

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

is coconut oil bad for youCoconut oil is the latest miracle food. Bloggers and talk show hosts are telling us how healthy it is. We are being told to cook with it, spread it on our toast, and put it in our smoothies. We are told to be creative. The more coconut oil you can get in your diet, the better.  But, is coconut oil bad for you?

The hype is working. 72% of the American public believes coconut oil is healthy. This is why the recent American Heart Association (AHA) Presidential Advisory on saturated fats has proven so controversial.

Interestingly, most of the AHA advisory was about the linkage between saturated fats from meat & dairy and heart disease risk. Only one paragraph of the 24-page report was devoted to coconut oil, but the AHA recommendation to avoid coconut oil generated the lion’s share of headlines.

What Did The AHA Presidential Advisory Say?

The AHA advisory concluded that saturated fats from meat and dairy foods increased the risk of heart disease. This conclusion was based on randomized clinical trials in which the diet was carefully controlled for a period of at least two years. More importantly, the conclusion was not based on LDL cholesterol, particle size, HDL cholesterol, inflammation or any other potential marker of heart disease risk. It was based on actual cardiovascular outcomes – heart attacks, strokes, deaths due to heart disease.

I have reviewed the AHA report in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor,” Are Saturated Fats Bad For You, and have concluded their statement that saturated fats from meat and dairy increase the risk of heart disease was based on solid evidence. We can now say definitively that those saturated fats should be minimized in our diets.

 

Is Coconut Oil Bad For You?

 

coconut oil bad for heartIn contrast to the saturated fats in meat and dairy, there have been no studies looking at the effect of coconut oil on cardiovascular outcomes. Instead, the authors of the AHA report relied on studies measuring the effect of coconut oil on LDL cholesterol levels. There have been 7 controlled trials in which coconut oil was compared with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils.

  • Coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol in all 7 studies.
  • The increase in LDL cholesterol in these studies was identical to that seen with butter, beef fat, or palm oil.

This evidence makes it probable that coconut oil increases the risk of heart disease. However, LDL is not a perfect predictor of heart disease risk. The only way to definitively prove that coconut oil increases the risk of heart disease would be to conduct clinical studies in which:

  • Coconut oil was substituted for other fats in the diet.
  • All other dietary components were kept the same.
  • The study lasted at least 2 years.
  • Adherence to the “coconut oil diet” was monitored.
  • Cardiovascular outcomes were measured (heart attack, stroke, death from heart disease).

In short, one would need the same type of study that supports the AHA warning about saturated fats from meats and dairy. In the absence of this kind of study, there is no “smoking gun.” We cannot definitively say that coconut oil increases the risk of heart disease.

Is Coconut Oil Healthy?

coconut oil healthyDoes that mean all those people who have been claiming coconut oil is a health food are right? Probably not. At the very least, their health claims are grossly overstated.

Let’s start with the obvious. In the absence of any long-term studies on the effect of coconut oil on cardiovascular outcomes, nobody can claim that coconut oil is heart healthy. It might be, but it might also be just as bad for you as the saturated fats from meat and dairy. It’s effect on LDL cholesterol suggests it might increase your risk of heart disease, but we simply do not know for certain.

I taught human metabolism to medical students for 40 years. I was also a research scientist who published in peer reviewed journals. When I look at the health claims for coconut oil on the internet, I am dismayed. Many of the claims are complete nonsense. Others sound plausible, but are based on an incomplete understanding of human metabolism. None of them would pass peer review, but, of course, there is no peer review on the internet.

In addition, some of the claims have been “cherry picked” from the literature. For example, claims that coconut oil increases metabolic rate or aids weight loss are based on short-term studies and ignore long-term studies showing those effects disappear over time.

Let me review some of the more plausible-sounding claims for coconut oil.

  • Coconut oil increases HDL levels, which is heart healthy. The effects of HDL cholesterol are complex. Elevated HDL levels are not always heart protective.

For example, a few years ago a pharmaceutical company developed a drug that raised HDL levels. They thought they had a blockbuster drug. You didn’t need to exercise. You didn’t need to lose weight. You would just pop their pill and your HDL levels would go up. There was only one problem. When they did the clinical studies, their drug had absolutely no effect on heart disease risk. It turns out it is exercise and weight loss that reduce heart disease risk, not the increase in HDL associated with exercise and weight loss.

The implications are profound. Just because something increases HDL levels does not mean it will reduce cardiovascular risk. You have to actually measure cardiovascular risk before claiming something is heart healthy. That has not been done for coconut oil, so no one can claim it is heart healthy.

  • Coconut oil consists of medium chain triglycerides, which are absorbed more readily than other fats. That is true, but it is of interest to you only if you suffer from a fat malabsorption disease. Otherwise, it is of little importance to you.
  • Medium chain triglycerides are preferentially transported to the liver, where the fats in coconut oil are converted to energy or released as ketones rather than being stored as fat. This is partially true, but it is misleading for two reasons.
    • First, the fat in coconut oil actually has three possible fates in the liver. Some of it will be converted to energy, but only enough to meet the immediate energy needs of the liver. If carbohydrate is limiting, the excess will be converted to ketones and exported to other tissues as an energy source. If carbohydrate is plentiful, the excess will be converted to long chain saturated fats identical to those found in meat and dairy and exported to other tissues for storage.
    • Secondly, nobody has repealed the laws of thermodynamics. If the fat in coconut oil is being preferentially used as an energy source by the liver and being exported as ketones to other tissues as an energy source, you need to ask what happens to the calories from the other components in your diet. If you are eating a typical American diet, the carbohydrate that would have been used for energy will be converted to fat and stored. If you are eating a low carbohydrate diet, the other fats that would have been used for energy will simply be stored. Simply put, if you are preferentially using the calories from coconut oil for energy, the calories from the other foods in your diet don’t just evaporate. They are stored as fat.
  • Coconut oil increases metabolic rate, which will help you lose weight. When you look at the studies, this is only a temporary effect. This is due to a phenomenon called metabolic adaptation that is often seen when one makes a dramatic shift in diet composition. Initially, you may see an increase in metabolic rate and weight loss. After a few weeks, the body adapts to the new diet,and your metabolic rate returns to normal.
  • Coconut oil is metabolized to ketones which have many beneficial effects. There is some truth to this claim. As I discussed in my analysis of the keto diet,  ketones have some real benefits, but not nearly as many as proponents claim. Furthermore, the amount of ketones produced by coconut oil will depend on the availability of carbohydrate. Much of the coconut oil in the context of a very low carbohydrate diet will likely be converted to ketones. Coconut oil spread on a piece of bread or used in baking is more likely going to be converted to fat.

I could go on, but you get the point. The hype about the benefits of coconut oil sounds good, but is misleading. There may be some benefits, but in the absence of long-term studies we have no convincing evidence that coconut oil is good for us.

What Does This Mean For You?

coconut oil bad or goodWhen you started reading this article, you were probably hoping that I would settle the coconut oil controversy. Perhaps you were hoping that I would tell you the American Heart Association was right, and you should avoid coconut oil completely. More likely you were hoping I would tell you the coconut oil proponents were right and you could continue looking for more ways to incorporate coconut oil into your diet. As usual, the truth is somewhere in between.

Coconut oil may increase our heart disease risk, but the evidence is not definitive. We cannot say with certainty that coconut oil is bad for us. On the other hand, most of the hype about the benefits of coconut oil is inaccurate or misleading. We have no well-designed, long-term studies on health outcomes from coconut oil use. We cannot say with certainty that coconut oil is good for us.

I recommend moderation. Small amounts of coconut oil are probably alright. If you have a particular recipe for which coconut oil gives the perfect flavor, go ahead and use it. Just don’t add it to everything you eat.

Finally, there are other oils we know to be healthy that you can use in place of coconut oil. If you are looking for monounsaturated oils, olive oil and avocado oil are your best bets. Olive oil can be used in salads and low temperature cooking. Avocado oil is better for high temperature cooking. Also, less frequently mentioned, safflower and sunflower oils are also good sources of monounsaturated fats.

If you are looking for a mixture of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, safflower oil, canola oil and peanut oil are your best bets. Peanut oil is also good for high temperature cooking.

Corn oil and soybean oil are your best sources of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, while flaxseed oil is your best vegetable source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • Coconut oil is the latest diet fad. It is highly promoted by the popular press, and 72% of Americans think it is healthy, even though it is a saturated fat.
  • The American Heart Association (AHA) has recently advised against the use of coconut oil because it likely increases the risk of heart disease and “has no offsetting beneficial effects.”  Because this statement is controversial, I have carefully analyzed the pros and cons of coconut oil use.
  • Coconut oil may increase our heart disease risk, but the evidence presented by the American Heart Association is not definitive. We cannot say with certainty that coconut oil is bad for us.
  • On the other hand, most of the hype about the benefits of coconut oil is inaccurate or misleading. We have no well-designed, long-term studies on health outcomes from coconut oil use. We cannot say with certainty that coconut oil is good for us.
  • I recommend moderation. Small amounts of coconut oil are probably alright. If you have a particular recipe for which coconut oil gives the perfect flavor, go ahead and use it. Just don’t add it to everything you eat.
  • For details of my analysis and suggestions for healthy fats you can substitute for coconut oil, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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