Soy And Breast Cancer Recurrence

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues

The Truth About Soy And Breast Cancer

 Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

SoybeanYou’ve probably heard the warnings: “Soy may increase the risk of breast cancer!” “Women with breast cancer shouldn’t use soy!”

The first warning was never true. Numerous clinical studies have shown that consumption of soy protein is associated with a lower risk of developing breast cancer.

Furthermore, the science behind the second warning has never been very strong. The concerns that soy might stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells was based primarily on cell culture experiments and one experiment in mice – even though a second experiment in mice came to the exact opposite conclusion.

Was The Hypothesis That Soy Could Increase The Risk Of Breast Cancer Recurrence Plausible?

The possibility that soy isoflavones could stimulate the growth of estrogen- responsive breast cancer was biochemically plausible because soy isoflavones bind to the estrogen receptor and have a very weak stimulatory effect (much weaker than estrogen itself).

Even that evidence was not definitive because soy isoflavones also turn on several tumor suppressor pathways in breast cells and help strengthen the immune system – so they could just as easily inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.

However, because the concerns were plausible and had not been definitively disproved, most experts, including me, recommended for several years that women with estrogen- responsive breast cancer might want to avoid soy protein.

Has The Hypothesis Been Rigorously Tested?

In fact, the definitive clinical studies have been performed, and it turns out for women who are breast cancer survivors, consumption of soy foods does not increase either the risk of breast cancer recurrence or of dying from breast cancer.

The first of these studies was reported in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers at Vanderbilt University and Shanghai Institute of Preventive Medicine (Shu et al, JAMA, 302: 2437-2443, 2009).

It was a large, well designed, study that enrolled 5042 Chinese women aged 20 to 75 years old who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and followed them for an average period of 3.9 years.

The women were divided into four groups based on the soy content of their diet (ranging from 5 grams/day to 15 grams/day). The results were clear cut. Breast cancer survivors with the highest soy intake had 25% less chance of breast cancer recurrence and 25% less chance of dying from breast cancer than the women with the lowest soy intake.

The effect was equally strong for women with estrogen receptor-positive and estrogen receptor negative cancers, for early stage and late stage breast cancer and for pre- and post-menopausal women. In short this was a very robust study.

The study also showed that soy protein intake did not interfere with tamoxifen, a drug that blocks the binding of estrogen to its receptor on cancer cells. Tamoxifen is used for both for treating estrogen-responsive breast cancer and preventing its recurrence. In this study, the reduction in the risk of breast cancer recurrence & death was just as great whether the breast cancer survivors were taking tamoxifen or not.

In fact, tamoxifen was protective only for women with low soy intake. It conferred no extra protection for the women at the highest level of soy intake because the soy isoflavones were also blocking the binding of estrogen to its receptor.

Other Clinical Studies

If that were the only published clinical study to test the soy-breast cancer hypothesis, I and other experts would be very cautious about making definitive statements. However, at least four more clinical studies have been published since then, both in Chinese and American populations. The studies have either shown no significant effect of soy on breast cancer recurrence or a protective effect. None of them have shown any detrimental effects of soy consumption by breast cancer survivors.

A meta-analysis of all 5 studies was published earlier this year (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.

The Bottom Line:

What does this mean for you if you are a breast cancer survivor?

1)     There are many reasons to include soy protein foods as part of a healthy diet. Soy foods are one of the highest quality vegetable protein sources and provide a great alternative to many of the high fat, high cholesterol animal proteins in the American diet.

2)     I personally feel that these studies are clear cut enough that breast cancer survivors no longer need to fear soy protein as part of a healthy diet.

3)     The responsible websites agree with this assessment. For example, WebMD and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) both say that breast cancer survivors need no longer worry about eating moderate amounts of soy foods.

4)     The irresponsible websites (I won’t name names, but you know who they are) are still warning breast cancer survivors to avoid soy completely. As a scientist I really have problem with people who are unwilling to change their opinions in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

5)     Of course, some of those bloggers have now shifted their arguments to say that it is unfermented or genetically modified soy that causes breast cancer. Those statements are equally bogus – but that’s another story for another time.

6)     Finally, I want to emphasize that the published studies merely show that soy does not increase the risk of breast cancer and is safe to use for breast cancer survivors. None of those studies suggest that soy is an effective treatment for breast cancer. The protective effects of soy are modest at best. If you have breast cancer, consult with your physician about the best treatment options for you.

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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Comments (6)

  • Pam

    |

    Dr. Chaney — THANK YOU for the clarification!! I found this article easy to understand!

    Reply

  • Marie

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    This is fantastic information! I am wondering how estrogen plays a role in soy consumption for the average person. Many doctors claim that pumping estrogen (by means of soy consumption) into men or nursing babies through their mother’s milk is dangerous and can be harmful, possibly sterilizing, men. Do these claims hold any truth?

    Reply

    • sysadmin_htftp

      |

      Dear Stella,
      That information is also misleading. Look for an article in a few weeks summarizing the latest clinical studies on the effects of soy consumption on men.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Susan

    |

    I am so glad to see this article and the timing is perfect for me. I have discussed with my Medical Oncologist, my soy protein shakes. I am in chemotherapy , my hormonal status is estrogen positive and she advised, she would prefer I did not have any soy products.

    I am going to take a copy of your email to my chemo appointment next Tuesday and see if she will change her mind.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful information.

    Reply

    • sysadmin_htftp

      |

      Dear Susan,
      You are doing exactly the right thing by discussing this information with your doctor. I can only report on the results of published clinical studies that represent the average effects of soy on breast cancer recurrence in a large group of breast cancer survivors. However, you are unique. What applies to the group as a whole, may not apply to you as an individual. That is why your oncologist is the best person to evaluate the data and give you the advice that best applies to you as an individual.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Teresa Robinson

    |

    Thanks, Dr. Chaney. Several in my family and several friends have had breast cancer. The topic is one that is always top of mind.

    Reply

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Latest Article

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

Posted October 16, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

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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