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

What Is The Planetary Diet?

Posted May 21, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Earth Day has come and gone, but you are still committed to saving the planet. You save energy. You recycle. You drive an electric car. But is your diet destroying the planet?

This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) serves as a dire warning of what will happen if we don’t change our ways. I touched on this report briefly in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor,” What Is The Flexitarian Diet , but this topic is important enough that it deserves an issue all its own.

The commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.” It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

How Was The Study Done?

The study (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) was the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. This Commission convened 30 of the top experts from across the globe to prepare a science-based evaluation of the effect of diet on both health and sustainable food production through the year 2050. The Commission included world class experts on healthy diets, agricultural methods, climate change, and earth sciences. The Commission reviewed 356 published studies in preparing their report.

 

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

When they looked at the effect of food production on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • “Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change.” Specifically, the commission reported:
  • Agriculture occupies 40% of global land (58% of that is for pasture use).
  • Food production is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use.
  • Conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands and pastures is the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction. Specifically, 80% of extinction threats to mammals and bird species are due to agricultural practices.
  • Overuse and misuse of nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers causes eutrophication. In case you are wondering, eutrophication is defined as the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates from commercial fertilizer) that stimulate the growth of algae and other aquatic plant life, usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen. This creates dead zones in lakes and coastal regions where fish and other marine organisms cannot survive.
  • About 60% of world fish stocks are fully fished and more than 30% are overfished. Because of this, catch by global marine fisheries has been declining since 1996.
  • “Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”
  • The world’s population is expected to increase to 10 billion by 2050. The current system of food production is unsustainable.

When they looked at the effect of the foods we eat on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • Beef and lamb are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and land use.
  • The concern about land use is obvious because of the large amount of pasture land required to raise cattle and sheep.
  • The concern about greenhouse gas emissions is because cattle and sheep are ruminants. They not only breathe out CO2, but they also release methane into the atmosphere from fermentation in their rumens of the food they eat. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and it persists in the atmosphere 25 times longer than CO2. The single most important thing we can do as individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to eat less beef and lamb. [Note: grass fed cattle produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cattle raised on corn because they require 3 years to bring to market rather than 2 years.]
  • In terms of energy use beef, lamb, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs all require much more energy to produce than any of the plant foods.
  • In terms of eutrophication, beef, lamb, and pork, all cause much more eutrophication than any plant food. Dairy and eggs cause more eutrophication than any plant food except fruits.
  • In contrast, plant crops reduce greenhouse gas emissions by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

 

What Is The Planetary Diet?

In the words of the Commission: “[The Planetary Diet] largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils. It includes a low to moderate amount of seafood, poultry, and eggs. It includes no or a very low amount of red meat, processed meat, sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.”

When described in that fashion it sounds very much like other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable. Here is a more detailed description of the diet:

  • It starts with a vegetarian diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, soy foods, and whole grains are the foundation of the diet.
  • It allows the option of adding one serving of dairy a day (It turns out that cows produce much less greenhouse emissions per serving of dairy than per serving of beef. That’s because cows take several years to mature before they can be converted to meat, and they are emitting greenhouse gases the entire time).
  • It allows the option of adding one 3 oz serving of fish or poultry or one egg per day.
  • It allows the option of swapping seafood, poultry, or egg for a 3 oz serving of red meat no more than once a week. If you want a 12 oz steak, that would be no more than once a month.

This is obviously very different from the way most Americans currently eat. According to the Commission:

  • “This would require greater than 50% reduction in consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and greater than 100% increase in the consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.”
  • “In addition to the benefits for the environment, “dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10.8-11.6 million deaths per year globally.”

What Else Did The Commission Recommend?

In addition to changes in our diets, the Commission also recommended several changes in the way food is produced. Here are a few of them.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fuel used to transport food to market.
  • Reduce food losses and waste by at least 50%.
  • Make radical improvements in the efficiency of fertilizer and water use. In terms of fertilizer, the change would be two-fold:
    • In developed countries, reduce fertilizer use and put in place systems to capture runoff and recycle the phosphorous.
    • In third world countries, make fertilizer more available so that crop yields can be increased, something the Commission refer to as eliminating the “yield gap” between third world and developed countries.
  • Stop the expansion of new agricultural land use into natural ecosystems and put in place policies aimed at restoring and re-foresting degraded land.
  • Manage the world’s oceans effectively to ensure that fish stocks are used responsibly and global aquaculture (fish farm) production is expanded sustainability.

What we can do: While most of these are government level policies, we can contribute to the first three by reducing personal food waste and purchasing organic produce locally whenever possible.

What Does This Mean For You?

If you are a vegan, you are probably asking why the Commission did not recommend a completely plant-based diet. The answer is that a vegan diet is perfect for the health of our planet. However, the Commission wanted to make a diet that was as consumer-friendly as possible and still meet their goals of a healthy, environmentally friendly, and sustainable diet.

If you are eating a typical American diet or one of the fad diets that encourage meat consumption, you are probably wondering how you can ever make such drastic changes to your diet. The answer is “one step at a time.”  If you have read my books “Slaying The Food Myths” or “Slaying the Supplement Myths,”  you know that my wife and I did not change our diet overnight. Our diet evolved to something very close to the Planetary Diet over a period of years.

The Commission also purposely designed the Planetary Diet so that you “never have to say never” to your favorite foods. Three ounces of red meat a week does not sound like much, but it allows you a juicy steak once a month.

Sometimes you just need to develop a new mindset. As I shared in my books, my father prided himself on grilling the perfect steak. I love steaks, but I decided to set a few parameters. I don’t waste my red meat calories on anything besides filet mignon at a fine restaurant. It must be a special occasion, and someone else must be buying. That limits it to 2-3 times a year. I still get to enjoy good steak, and I stay well within the parameters of the Planetary diet.

Develop your strategy for enjoying some of your favorite foods within the parameters of the Planetary Diet and have fun with it.

The Bottom Line

 

Is your diet destroying the planet? This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report serves as a dire warning of what will happen to us and our planet if we don’t change our ways.

The Commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The Commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.”  It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

The Planetary Diet is similar to other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable (for details, read the article above).

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

For more details 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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