An older woman and older man prepare a plant-based mealShare on Pinterest
Experts say plant-based diets filled with vegetables and fruits are the healthiest. Jayme Burrows/Stocksy
  • Researchers say a healthy plant-based diet can reduce the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
  • They warn that an unhealthy plant-based diet with processed foods and added sugars can actually increase breast cancer risk.
  • Experts recommend making incremental small changes as you incorporate more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains into your diet.

Eating a healthy plant-based diet that includes whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and fruits may reduce the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

However, eating an unhealthy plant-based diet could actually increase that risk. Unhealthy plant-based diets are those that include a lot of highly processed and refined foods as well as added sugars.

That’s according to a new study from France published in Current Developments in Nutrition.

The study examined food intake in 65,574 postmenopausal women. Information on diet and health status was collected between 1993 and 2014.

The results were assessed with respect to which women developed breast cancer throughout the course of the study. Funding for the research came from the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation.

The researchers found that having a healthy plant-based diet was associated with a lower risk of breast cancer while an unhealthy plant-based diet was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

The study authors say their research further emphasizes the importance of diet quality regarding cancer prevention.

The findings are no surprise to Amy Bragagnini, MS, RD, CSO, an oncology nutrition specialist at Trinity Health Lacks Cancer Center in Michigan and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Same with Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, the lead dietitian and manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine.

Bragagnini does warn that the divide between healthy and unhealthy may be misleading when it comes to plant-based eating, especially considering that healthy foods such as broccoli consumed in excess are not necessarily more beneficial and may not be healthy for the digestive tract.

Likewise, she adds that eating unhealthy foods in moderation (for example, one of two servings of potato chips every now and then) can still fit into a healthy and balanced diet.

For Kirkpatrick, the key takeaway from the study is that plant-based foods high in sugar and refined grains are not in the same category of benefit as, for example, fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

A person in menopause typically experiences hormonal changes that may increase the rate at which the woman stores visceral fat, which is the fat that surrounds the internal organs, explains Bragagnini.

Other metabolic changes such as changes in insulin sensitivity, glucose metabolism, and loss of lean body mass during menopause can lead to an increased risk for the development of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, she adds.

Kirkpatrick notes the bulk of her clients are postmenopausal women who are dealing with an inability to manage weight (especially belly fat) due to changes brought on by menopause.

The loss of estrogen can be an eye-opener for so many of her clients, she says.

“But good health and weight maintenance is possible with adherence to a healthy diet along with the limitation of processed hyper-palatable foods (ie., refined grains and foods and beverages with excess added sugars),” Kirkpatrick tells Healthline.

No matter your age, anyone trying to eat a healthy plant-based diet should be aware of the “health halo effect.”

The effect is important to consider when it comes to purchasing food from the grocery store, Bragagnini tells Healthline. It may lead to the perception that a food is “good” for you and that can be misleading.

For example, she says a beautifully packaged bag of potato chips may say “all natural” or “plant-based,” but they are still potato chips.

Kirkpatrick’s example of vegan cookies echoes this warning.

“You can find a vegan cookie that will still create a dramatic impact on insulin and blood sugar levels, making it a more high glycemic option that in turn keeps hunger revved up,” says Kirkpatrick.

Experts say you can make changes to your eating patterns at any age, but especially during menopause and postmenopause.

They recommend focusing on the below suggestions from nutrition experts.

One small change at a time

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” notes Bragnanini.

She suggests the best approach to reducing health risks in postmenopause may be to practice small changes.

Determine what changes could be made (for example, drinking more water, moving your body more, reducing adding sugars) and slowly implement ways to help make those changes stick and become healthy habits, she suggests.

Reduce added sugars

“Foods and beverages containing added sugar are generally filled with extra calories and may not add nutritional value to the diet,” says Bragnanini.

Being more aware of added sugar levels by checking the food label is a great place to start, she says.

Kirkpatrick adds that the connection between added sugar and cancer risk is well-documented.

For example, she says, a 2019 study found a possible link between sugar-sweetened beverages and cancer.

Increase fruit and vegetable intake

Experts say it’s been well documented that increasing fruit and vegetable intake can help reduce cancer risk.

Bragagnini suggests increasing intake by making more dishes with vegetables as a base.

“It is important that we are all aiming to consume 5 to 7-plus servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but if a client is only taking in 2 servings a day, I generally don’t ask them to shoot for 7 servings immediately, as that rarely is a goal that can be reached right away,” she says.

Instead, Bragagnini suggests making adjustments such as substituting items with low nutritional value for more fruits and vegetables. An example may be choosing pancakes with blueberries over chocolate chips.

Both experts also note the importance of non-dietary approaches to reducing cancer risk in postmenopausal women. These approaches can include getting adequate exercise, managing stress levels, and reducing alcohol intake.