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Promoting Girls’ Breast Health: Diets Rich in Carotenoids Slash Girls’ Risk of Benign Breast Disease by Half

Have daughters? Make sure they eat plenty of fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids, and you could go a long way toward protecting their future breast health. According to a new study published in Pediatrics, girls whose intake of beta-carotene was highest during adolescence slashed their risk of developing benign breast disease by 50 percent later in life.

No doubt you’re aware of the threat of breast cancer to women’s health. But what is benign breast disease? This umbrella term covers several noncancerous conditions of the breast that typically affect teenage girls and young women. The word “benign” may be a misnomer though, as overall, young women with benign breast disease have between one and a half to two times the odds of developing breast cancer.[1]

Not many lifestyle factors have been found to protect against benign breast disease, but carotenoids now rank among the few. These protective phyto-nutrients are plentiful in orange, red, and dark-green fruits and vegetables—such as papaya, carrots, tomatoes, kale, and spinach.

The large, long-term observational study, which was conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, followed almost 6,600 girls (average age of 12) for 14 years. Researchers divided them into four groups based on their carotenoid intake and controlled for factors that could influence the results, such as alcohol intake, smoking, exercise, family history of breast disease, and body mass index. They then tracked how many carotenoids the girls consumed from 1996 to 1998 (based on food diaries) and their incidence of benign breast disease in 2005, 2007, and 2010 (7-12 years later) to see if there was a correlation.

There was: The incidence of benign breast disease among girls who ate the most foods rich in beta-carotene was almost half that of those who ate the least.[2] The study also found smaller protective effects for other carotenoids—such as alpha-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin—but they were not statistically significant. The best news is that the girls in the highest intake group didn’t have to eat an unreasonable amount of carotenoid-rich foods to get the protective benefit: just two to three servings per week.

The fact that the study followed adolescents is important, because the span of time between a girl’s first period and the rest of her adolescence is thought to be a particularly sensitive one for breast tissue, which is especially vulnerable to environmental toxins.

Scientists don’t know how carotenoids protect breast tissue, but they speculate it may be their antioxidant properties. Carotenoids neutralize unstable molecules called free radicals (or oxidants) that can harm cells. It could be that by reducing oxidative stress, they prevent free radical damage to breast tissue.

The lead researcher of the study, Caroline Boeke, concludes, "Eating carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables like carrots and sweet potato, pumpkin, kale and spinach may be protective against breast disease and certainly has many other health benefits…Encouraging consumption of these foods is a great thing."

It’s just one more piece of evidence that childhood nutrition matters and another reason to encourage kids and teens to eat their fruits and vegetables—of all colors.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Will your daughters be eating more fruits and veggies?


[1] Doyle K. For teen girls, fruits and veggies linked to lower risk of breast condition. Reuters. 2014 Apr 8.

[2] Boeke C, et al. Adolescent carotenoid intake and benign breast disease. Pediatrics. 2014 May;133(5):88.



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