• Tamar Rothenberg, MS, RD

Foods that fight inflammation and breast cancer

Updated: Jul 7

You may have heard of “inflammation” and how bad it is. In reality, there are two types of inflammation, a “good” kind and a “bad” kind. We now know that foods that fight chronic inflammation—the bad kind—can help you stay healthy, and also reduce your risk of breast cancer.


How do our bodies use inflammation? This natural and essential process defends your body from infections and heals injured cells and tissues.


Inflammation may be compared to a fire. It generates critical biochemicals that can destroy invaders like bacteria and viruses, targets blood flow to areas that need it, and cleans up nasty debris. It can be a good thing. But too much of a good thing can lead to a chronic condition and sometimes, breast cancer.


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Inflammation is often described as a fire and there are certain foods that fight inflammation
Foods that fight inflammation also fight breast cancer

Let’s sort out the two different types of inflammation.


Acute inflammation is usually at high levels in a small localized area in response to an infection or some kind of damage to the body. It’s necessary for proper healing and injury repair.


The hallmark of acute inflammation is that it goes away after the damage is healed, often within days or even hours. Acute inflammation is the “good” kind of inflammation because it does a remarkable job in the right time, and then quiets itself down.


Chronic inflammation is different. It’s more of the slow-burning and smoldering type of fire. This type of inflammation can exist throughout your whole body at lower levels. This means that the symptoms aren’t localized to one particular area that needs it. Instead, they can appear gradually, and can last much longer—months or even years. This is the “bad” kind of inflammation.


How does chronic inflammation begin? It often begins acutely—from an infection or injury—and then instead of shutting off, it becomes persistent. Chronic low-grade inflammation can also occur with exposure to chemicals (e.g., tobacco) or radiation, consuming foods which don't provide nutrition, too much alcohol, not being very physically active, and even feeling stressed or socially isolated.


Use spices such as cumin, cinnamon, paprika and cayenne on foods to fight inflammation
Use anti-inflammatory spices such as cumin, cinnamon, paprika and cayenne

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Inflammation and the breast cancer connection

While we don't know the mechanism of how inflammation becomes chronic, we do know the impact on breast cancer. Women who eat a pro-inflammatory diet, have a 12% increased risk of breast cancer. The study of more than 380,000 women, showed a stronger impact on pre-menopausal women, for whom being overweight is seen as more protective. So it seems weight and hormones are not the mechanism.


The study also suggests what other studies have also shown. The pattern of eating has more of an impact on health and disease, than any single food. Foods incorporated into the Mediterranean Diet, for example, suggests a pattern that does not promote inflammation in the body


Although we see that inflammation underlies cancer and other medical conditions, the good news is we have some control over chronic inflammation. The way we eat most of the time, along with lifestyle habits, are powerful ways to fight destructive inflammation fires.


Here’s what to do to put out those slow-burning, smoldering fires.


Enjoy an anti-inflammatory diet with foods to fight inflammation:

  • Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains (brown rice, oats, bran), nuts (almonds), seeds, fish, poultry, legumes (beans, lentils), and healthy oils (olive oil)

  • Pay particular attention to foods high in antioxidant polyphenols, including colorful plants such as berries, cherries, plums, red grapes, avocados, onions, carrots, beets, turmeric, green tea, and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale

  • Omega-3 fats can help to reduce pain and clear up inflammation and, aside from fish, are found in plant foods such as soy, walnuts, and flax

  • High fiber foods (whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes) encourage friendly gut microbes to help reduce inflammation

  • Limit inflammatory foods such as red and processed meats (lunch meats, hot dogs, hamburgers), fried foods (fries), unhealthy fats (shortening, lard), sugary foods and drinks (sodas, candy, sports drinks), refined carbohydrates (white bread, cookies, pie), and ultra-processed foods (microwaveable dinners, dehydrated soups). There's room for these foods, but shouldn't comprise the majority of your diet.

  • Herbs and spices are often overlooked! These are powerful and compact nutrient packages that not only flavor food, but also provide ways to reduce inflammation.

  • Limit or eliminate your alcohol intake.


Find movement you enjoy

  • Regular exercise reduces inflammation and has a remarkable impact on reducing breast cancer recurrence. Add brisk walking and two or more strength training sessions (using weights or resistance bands) each week.


Get enough restful sleep

  • Disrupted sleep has recently been linked to increased inflammation and atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in the vessels that’s linked with heart disease), along with breast cancer. Aim for 7-9 hours of restful sleep every night to help the body heal and repair

  • Tips for better sleep: Maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule every day, get exposure to natural daylight earlier in the day, avoid caffeine later in the day, cut out screens an hour before bedtime, and create a relaxing nighttime routine.


Manage your stress

  • Engage in relaxing stress-reducing activities such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or tai chi.


Be social

  • New research suggests that feeling socially isolated is linked with higher levels of inflammation, so reach out to family and friends (or make new ones).


Bottom line

Chronic, long-term, low-level inflammation is linked with breast cancer. The first approach to preventing and improving this is through foods that fight inflammation and lifestyle changes. Start by focusing on adding colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fish to your diet. Then layer in lifestyle upgrades like physical activity, restful sleep, and stress management.


These changes can be integrated into your day-to-day practices. First try adding one additional fruit or vegetable to your day. Then, several times a day at each snack or meal.


If you’d like a strategy designed to help you enjoy more of these anti-inflammatory foods, enrollment is now open for my self-paced courses, Take your next steps to your best health after breast cancer.