Web Exclusive

New Findings on Alcohol and Exercise and Their Link to Breast Cancer
By Lindsey Getz

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) have released a report examining the connections between breast cancer, alcohol consumption, and exercise. Researchers analyzed 119 studies, including data on 12 million women and 260,000 cases of breast cancer.

Previous studies have linked alcohol with cancer risk, but this report from the AICR and WCRF concluded that drinking just one glass of wine or other alcoholic drink per day may increase breast cancer risk. Specifically, the report found strong evidence that drinking the equivalent of a small glass of wine (~3.5 oz) or beer (~8.5 oz) per day (about 10 g alcohol content) increases premenopausal breast cancer risk by 5% and postmenopausal risk by 9%.

Alice G. Bender, MS, RDN, head of nutrition programs at AICR, says the AICR recognizes that people must make an individual decision on alcohol use based on their personal risk factors for breast cancer. Bender says the AICR's recommendation has been to avoid alcohol, but, if one chooses to drink, to limit it to one standard drink (12 oz beer, 5 oz wine, or 1.5 oz distilled spirits) per day for women and two or fewer for men.

"We're aware that people drink, but it would be prudent to weigh your risk factors and consider cutting back. If you don't eliminate alcohol, at least limit it," Bender says. "We have found a number of cancers that link to alcohol intake—not just breast cancer—so it's something to consider."

Bender says that when dietitians counsel patients they should talk about their personal risk factors as well as their overall diet and help them make changes where they can. These findings may give them the motivation they need to limit or eliminate alcohol, Bender adds.   

Bender says it's also helpful to offer practical suggestions that will make reducing alcohol intake easier. Dietitians can be valuable by applying findings such as this to real life—and making them doable. Bender knows people enjoy having a beverage at a party or a gathering but says it doesn't have to be alcoholic to be enjoyable.

"Making a spritzer is a great way to have a fancy drink but still cut back on the alcoholic intake," Bender says. "You can cut your wine with sparkling water or even make festive drinks that don't contain alcohol at all but have fruit purées or sparkling water in them. There are many ways to make a drink festive and fun without adding alcohol."

The other big finding in the report was on physical activity. The report found that with vigorous exercise (running or fast cycling), premenopausal women who were the most active had a 17% lower risk, and postmenopausal women had a 10% lower risk of developing breast cancer compared with those who were least active.

In terms of moderate activity, the report confirmed earlier findings that moderate-level exercise, such as walking or gardening, decreased the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer, which is the most common type of breast cancer. The report stated a 13% lower risk when compared with the most vs least active postmenopausal women.  

"We already knew from previous findings that physical activity was linked to a decreased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women, but the findings for premenopausal women are new and exciting," Bender says. "Premenopausal breast cancer isn't as common, and we don't have as much information on it. Now we're seeing a direct link between vigorous activity and a decreased risk."

Bender says her best advice on incorporating more exercise is to "make small changes every day." If a client isn't a regular exerciser, encourage them to start small so that they don't get overwhelmed at the prospect of a huge change.

"Start where [they're] at," she adds. "If they're not exercising at all, start with regular walking. It's not like they have to go 'all or nothing.' Make small changes and build on them."

Bender says that at the end of the day, it's all about making changes that ultimately lead to a more healthful lifestyle. She hopes dietitians can use these findings to encourage their patients to make changes that will make a difference in their health.

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.