← Breastcancer.org

Losing Weight and Eating a Low-Fat Diet May Help You Live Longer

By on February 2nd, 2015 Categories: Uncategorized

Especially for Women With Hormone-Receptor-Negative Breast Cancer

For me, getting to and sticking to a healthy weight has been a life-long struggle. I LOVE to eat and I often eat too much or eat foods that aren’t the healthiest. I was reluctant to give up my glass of wine, cheese, and crackers that I thought of as my reward at the end of a 15-hour work day.

But when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, I had a HUGE motivator to clean up my diet and get to a healthy weight to reduce my risk of recurrence. But some of the treatments for breast cancer and the emotional fallout of being diagnosed, not to mention being thrown into early menopause, make it hard to lose weight. Still, I managed to lose 20 pounds. Then, pretty quickly, I gained back 5, then another 5 pounds. It’s been a nasty, ugly, and hard daily battle to keep from regaining the last 10 pounds. For me and for so many women I know and take care of, the battle with weight ruins part of each day. I need any tips and extra motivation to keep my focus and build my willpower.

At the 2014 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, a study presented by Dr. Rowan Chlebowski, a medical oncologist at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, gave me new insights into how diet may affect breast cancer recurrence and survival. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Chlebowski about the study — watch the video:

WINS Study from Breastcancer.org on Vimeo.

The study was called the Women’s Intervention Nutrition Study (WINS). You might have heard of it — the researchers have done several analyses of the data in the last few years. The doctors wanted to know if a low-fat diet would improve survival for women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.

To figure that out, the doctors split 2,437 women aged 48 to 79 who were diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in to two groups:

  • One group was told to eat a low-fat diet and was asked to keep track of how much fat they ate. These women also went to nutritional counseling sessions. During the study, the researchers would call the women at various times and ask how much fat they had eaten in the last 24 hours. There were 975 women in this group.
  • The other group of 1,462 women ate as they always had. These women didn’t get any special nutritional counseling and weren’t told to follow a low-fat diet. They also received phone calls to track their eating habits.

The study lasted for 5 years and the researchers kept checking on the women for about 15 more years. Overall, the women who ate a low-fat diet reduced the amount of calories they got from fat by almost 10% — from 29% to 20%. Their average weight loss was about 6 pounds. If I were part of the study, I’d be pretty happy with those results.

The researchers found that the women who followed the low-fat diet lived slightly longer than the women who didn’t follow the low-fat diet. Still, the difference wasn’t statistically significant. This means that the difference in survival could have been due to just chance and not because of the difference in what the women ate or how much weight they lost.

But the researchers decided to dig deeper into the data to see if there were certain groups of women who might benefit more from the low-fat diet and the weight loss. In the study, nearly 1,600 of the women were diagnosed with hormone-receptor-positive disease and about 840 women were diagnosed with hormone-receptor-negative disease. It turns out the low-fat diet and weight loss had a bigger effect on women diagnosed with hormone-receptor-negative breast cancer:

  • women diagnosed with estrogen-receptor-negative disease who followed a low-fat diet (and were more likely to lose weight) had 36% better survival compared to women who didn’t change their diet
  • women diagnosed with estrogen-receptor-negative AND progesterone-receptor-negative disease who ate a low-fat diet (and were more likely to lose weight) had 56% better survival compared to women who didn’t change their diet

The survival benefits for both groups were statistically significant. This means that the survival improvement is likely due to the differences in diet and the associated weight loss and not because of chance.

Dr. Chlebowski and his colleagues think that losing weight probably played a bigger role in the better survival than the drop in dietary fat. We know that being overweight increases the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the first place and also increases the risk of recurrence.

There are a bunch of reasons why extra fat increases risk. Extra fat cells make extra hormones such as estrogen and insulin growth factors. These hormones can turn on extra breast cell growth, including abnormal growth such as cancer. Plus, many of the hormonally-active chemicals in the environment are stored in body fat. Fat cells also cause inflammation that irritates and damages normal cells and wears down the immune system. When the immune system can’t fix cell damage as well as it used to, the health of our cells declines.

It’s clear that being at a healthy weight helps everyone get and stay well, even if one group may benefit more than another. For sure, weight management is one of my key strategies to live as long a life as possible. BUT, to stick to my diet, it’s going to take LOTS of tips, tricks and support. Losing weight is SUPER HARD and losing weight after 50 is even HARDER. At Breastcancer.org, we all try to help each other while we work to help all the people in our community. We know that many of you face the same challenge. Research shows that more than 64% of American adult women are overweight or obese. If we all work together and support each other, we’ll make much more progress.

First step: Talk to your doctor about a healthy weight for you based on your age, your height, your body type, and how active you are. Tell your doctor the kinds of things you can and can’t do and the things that you like and don’t like doing. Be open to being more active.

Once you have a goal, aim to eat a healthy diet that’s full of fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods, sugar, and trans fats. Avoiding alcohol and exercising every day also can help you get to your healthy weight.

Getting started is the hardest part. There are highs and lows. Be encouraged by the pounds you lose in the first 1-2 weeks. After that it can be struggle for some people because the weight doesn’t come off as fast. But keep at it. More weight loss and feeling lighter and better give you the positive reinforcement you need to keep you on course. You can read more tips on the Breast Cancer Risk Factors: Being Overweight page and get support from other members of the Breastcancer.org community at the Fitness and Getting Back in Shape and Healthy Recipes for Everyday Living Discussion Boards.

Also, stay tuned for an upcoming Think Pink, Live Green column that will look at the relationship between long-term (or chronic) inflammation in-depth. The short version is that chronic inflammation means the immune system is working overtime. It’s continuously flooding the body with extra cells and proteins that can damage cells and tissues, and change the way they function. These changes can lead to many kinds of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Being overweight can cause chronic inflammation.

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.


Leave a Comment

To keep our Community safe, you must register to start a topic, post a reply, or use the Chat Rooms. If you are an existing member of our Discussion Boards, you can log in to access your account. Please review our Privacy Statement before registering.

Register now or log in to your account.

Back to top

Breastcancer.org is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing information and community to those touched by this disease. Learn more about our commitment to providing complete, accurate, and private breast cancer information.

Breastcancer.org 120 East Lancaster Avenue, Suite 201 Ardmore, PA 19003

© 2021 Breastcancer.org - All rights reserved.