Soy and Breast Cancer

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Food and Health, Nutritiion

soy and breast cancerThe Soy Controversy

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

 

Soy and breast cancer: the wars are heating up again. You may have seen the recent headlines saying: “Soy protein found to speed the growth of breast cancer!” “Eating soy may turn on genes linked to [breast] cancer growth!” “Women with breast cancer should avoid high soy diets!” It all sounds pretty scary.

If this is true, it is big news. In recent years the consensus in the scientific community has been that soy is not harmful for women with breast cancer, and that it might even be beneficial. However, some skeptics have never accepted that consensus view. Those skeptics are once again claiming that soy protein may be risky for women with breast cancer.

Let’s look at the study behind the recent headlines and see if it is compelling enough to challenge the prevailing consensus on the safety of soy for women with breast cancer.

Does Soy Protein Turn On Breast Cancer Growth Genes?

This study (Shike et al, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Sep 4 2014, doi: 10.1093/jnci/dju 189) looked at 140 women (average age 56) with invasive breast cancer. They were randomly divided into two groups of 70 and either given soy protein or a placebo between the initial biopsy and the time that surgery was performed to remove the tumor (a period of 7 to 30 days). A second biopsy was obtained at the time of surgery.

The activity of a number of genes associated with breast cancer survival was measured in the two biopsy samples. The observation that made the headlines was:

  • For some of the women in the study the activity of several genes associated with breast cancer growth and survival was increased in the group consuming soy protein compared to the placebo group. The authors concluded: “These data raise concern that soy may exert a stimulatory effect on breast cancer in a subset of women.”

What Are The Limitations Of The Study?

The authors acknowledged the many limitations of the study, but the press has largely ignored them.

  • The increased activity of the cancer growth genes was only seen in 20% of the women studied. For 80% of the women studied soy protein consumption had no effect on the activity of genes associated with breast cancer growth and survival.
  • This effect was only seen for some of the genes associated with breast cancer growth and survival. Other breast cancer growth genes were not affected in any of the women enrolled in the study. The authors conceded that it was unknown whether these limited genetic changes would have any effect on tumor growth and survival.
  • There was no effect of soy consumption on actual tumor growth in any of the women studied.
  • This was a very short term study so it is not known whether these changes in gene expression would have continued if soy supplementation were continued for a longer period of time. There are numerous examples in the literature of initial changes in gene expression in response to a radical change in diet that disappear once the body becomes accustomed to the new diet.
  • There is absolutely no way of knowing if the observed changes in gene expression would actually affect clinical outcomes such as survival, response to chemotherapy or tumor recurrence.

Should Women With Breast Cancer Avoid Soy?breast cancer prevention

Even with all of the limitations listed above, if this were the only study to test the soy-breast cancer hypothesis, I and most other experts would probably be warning women with breast cancer to be very cautious about consuming soy.

However, as I discussed in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor” (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/soy-and-breast-cancer-recurrence/) at least five clinical studies have been published on the effects of soy consumption on the recurrence of breast cancer in women who are breast cancer survivors, both in Chinese and American populations. 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 by breast cancer survivors.

A meta-analysis of all 5 studies was published last 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.

Another meta-analysis of 18 clinical studies found that soy slightly decreases the risk of developing breast cancer in the first place (J Natl Cancer Inst, 98: 459-471, 2006). To date there is absolutely no clinical evidence that soy increases the risk of breast cancer.

The Bottom Line

What does this mean for you if you are a woman with breast cancer, a breast cancer survivor or someone who is concerned about your risk of developing breast cancer?

  1. The study that has generated the recent headlines has so many limitations that I would not recommend any changes in soy consumption at present. It raises an interesting hypothesis that requires further study and validation. If this hypothesis holds up it may result in changes in dietary recommendations for a very small subset of women with invasive breast cancer.
  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.
  1. I personally feel that these studies are clear cut enough that women who are concerned about their breast cancer risk, women with breast cancer, and breast cancer survivors no longer need to fear soy protein as part of a healthy diet.
  1. 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.
  1. The irresponsible websites (I won’t name names, but you know who they are) are still warning breast cancer survivors to avoid soy completely. They are citing the latest study, with all of its limitations, as proof that they were right all along. As a scientist I really have a problem with people who are unwilling to change their opinions in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.
  1. 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.

Trackback from your site.

Comments (2)

  • Amy Williams

    |

    Hi Steve, I sure have missed seeing you and Suzanne. I am enjoying reading and listening to your information

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      We hope to see you soon. You are a good friend.

      Reply

Leave a comment

Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney

READ THE ARTICLE
READ THE ARTICLE

Latest Article

Best Diet For Heart Disease Prevention

Posted July 9, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are The American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

What is the best diet for heart disease prevention? 

diet for heart disease preventionHeart disease is a killer. It continues to be the leading cause of death – both worldwide and in industrialized countries like the United States and the European Union. When we look at heart disease trends, it is a good news – bad news situation.

  • The good news is that heart disease deaths are continuing to decline in adults over 70.
  • The decline among senior citizens is attributed to improved treatment of heart disease and more seniors following heart-healthy diets.
  • The bad news is that heart disease deaths are starting to increase in younger adults, something I reported in an earlier issue, Heart Attacks Increasing in Young Women of “Health Tips From the Professor.”
  • The reason for the rise in heart disease deaths in young people is less clear. However, the obesity epidemic, junk and convenience foods, and the popularity of fad diets all likely play a role.

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

Of course, we don’t eat fats, carbohydrates, or proteins. We eat foods. That is why a recent study (T Meier et al, European Journal of Epidemiology, 34: 37-45, 2019) is so important. It reported which foods increase and which decrease the risk of premature heart disease deaths.

How Was The Study Done?

diet for heart disease prevention studyThe authors of the current study analyzed data from the “Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) Study”, a major world-wide effort designed to estimate the portions of deaths caused by various risk factors.

The current study focused on the impact of 12 dietary risk factors on heart disease deaths between 1990 and 2016 for 51 countries in four regions (Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia).

The dietary risk factors were:

  • Diets low in fiber, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains.
  • Diets high in sodium, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and trans fatty acids.

Saturated fat and meat were not explicitly included in the GBS Study data. However, diets low in polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats are likely high in saturated fats. Similarly, diets low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are likely higher in meats. The study also did not include dairy, and some recent studies suggest that some dairy foods may decrease heart disease risk.

For simplicity I will only consider the findings from Western Europe because their diet and heart disease death trends are similar to those in the United States.

 

Best Diet for Heart Disease Prevention?

plant-based diet bestThe study found that in 2016 (the last year for which data were available):

  • Dietary risk factors were responsible for 49.2% of heart disease deaths.
  • 6% of all diet-related heart disease deaths occurred in adults younger than 70, and that percentage has been increasing in recent years.

When they looked at the contribution of individual foods to diet related heart disease deaths, the percentages were:

  • Diets low in whole grains = 20.4%
  • Diets low in nuts and seeds = 16.2%
  • Diets low in fruits = 12.5%
  • Diets high in sodium = 12.0%
  • Diets low in omega-3s = 10.8%
  • strong heartDiets low in vegetables = 9.0%
  • Diets low in legumes = 7.0%
  • Diets low in fiber = 5.7%
  • Diets low in polyunsaturated fats = 3.7%
  • Diets high in processed meats = 1.6%
  • Diets high in trans fatty acids = 0.8%
  • Diets high in sugar-sweetened beverages = 0.1%

So, what is the best diet for heart disease prevention?

In short, this study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat was not included in the analysis, but it is likely that most people’s diets in this region of the world contained some meat. The most likely take-away is that meat does not affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis either, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in Western Europe.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

Are the American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

A recent study provides some important clues. It looked at dietary patterns associated with reduced risk of premature death from heart disease in Western Europe. The study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat did not appear to affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

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.

UA-43257393-1