Anxiety, Overeating, and Breast Cancer: How Are These Related?

Some of us may have experienced the need to eat whenever we feel stressed and anxious. While research shows that it is debatable whether there truly is a link between anxiety and emotional overeating, this phenomenon still gives us a reason to dig deeper into its implications. There have been several studies regarding the relationship between anxiety, overeating, and cancer. In this article, we will explore the particular case of breast cancer and its connection to anxiety and overeating. What do recent studies show about anxiety and breast cancer? How about the association between overeating and breast cancer? Can mindful eating reduce your risk of breast cancer? Let us find out.

Anxiety Leading to Overeating

Before we head onto the implications of anxiety and overeating towards breast cancer, let us first consider the relationship between anxiety and overeating. This will give us better insight into the connections between anxiety and breast cancer, as well as overeating and breast cancer.

As previously mentioned, existing studies on the link between anxiety and overeating can appear to be contradictory against one another. However, a recent study in 2022 about the effects of anxiety and stress due to the COVID-19 situation showed an indirect effect of anxiety on stress and overeating. The researchers gave questionnaires to 2,926 college students aged 18 to 25 and concluded that the study supports existing research on the relationship between anxiety and eating disorders. 

A separate study in 2021 also highlighted the effects of anxiety during the COVID-19 lockdowns. In this research participated by adults at a median age of 24 years old, the scientists emphasized overeating as a consequence of exposure to social media. Around half of these participants exhibited signs of emotional overeating and the desire for high-calorie foods.

From these studies, we can say that recent studies, especially with the current situation, lean towards a direct correlation between anxiety and overeating. Particularly, during high-stress circumstances such as the matters on COVID-19, anxiety can lead us to overeat. 

Anxiety and Its Link to Breast Cancer

Although there are no apparent causal studies between anxiety and breast cancer, scientists have already compiled and analyzed correlational studies from multiple research. In a 2019 systematic review, researchers assessed 36 studies with a total of 16,298 breast cancer patients. They have found that 41.9% of these patients show signs of high levels of anxiety. 

In another relationship study from 2020, researchers assessed a set of Global Burden of Disease data that showed a higher incidence of breast cancer in countries with a high prevalence of anxiety. Countries such as New Zealand and the Netherlands are those with high breast cancer rates and frequent cases of anxiety.

The researchers from the 2020 study suggest that the reason for this relationship between anxiety and breast cancer roots in the underlying link between anxiety and the immune system. Anxiety can also affect hormones such as cortisol and estrogen, which affect the function of the mammary glands. Additionally, anxiety also brings about unhealthy habits such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and overeating. All of these reportedly increase the risk of breast cancer.

How Does Overeating Affect Breast Cancer?

We have established a case where anxiety leads to overeating. At the same time, we have shown a link between anxiety and breast cancer. If we can show a correlation between overeating and breast cancer, we can also say that anxiety can indirectly affect breast cancer. Through this reasoning, we can hit two birds at the same time, with anxiety and overeating being related to breast cancer.

There aren’t many studies that specifically explore the relationship between emotional overeating and breast cancer. However, overeating that leads to excess body weight has long been an established risk for cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimated that in 2016, excess body weight relates to 20% of all cancer deaths. 

Specifically, a 2019 case-control research shows the correlation between overeating and breast cancer risk in terms of caloric intake. Researchers conducted the study on 973 pairs of women in the premenopausal and postmenopausal stages. Results showed that premenopausal women who consumed fewer calories than their expected caloric intake had a lower risk of breast cancer, while postmenopausal women who consumed excessive calories had a higher risk of breast cancer. 

In light of these recent results, the same 2019 study suggested that moderation of caloric intake and its restriction could be a good strategy that reduces the risk of breast cancer. At the same time, women could also participate in regular physical activity to reduce excess body weight and prevent the possibility of developing breast cancer.

Mindful Eating for Breast Cancer

Aside from moderating caloric intake and engaging in physical activity, scientists have also been looking into the idea of incorporating mindful eating into the treatment and prevention of breast cancer. 

Contrary to what you might think, mindful eating does not mean that you religiously take note of the macronutrients and minerals in what you eat. Mindful eating consists of savoring the food in itself as an experience and having a full presence of mind in what you and your senses are feeling. While the end goal does not necessarily lead to losing weight, it can be an offshoot of mindful eating. You can practice mindful eating through the following:

  • Before eating compulsively, reflect on what you are feeling. It can be that you are currently stressed, bored, angry, lonely, or sad. This helps in your assessment of your eating habits.
  • In your reflection, respond properly to your state. If you are bored, do something exciting. Do not confuse eating as a response to boredom.
  • Appreciate the process which resulted in the food by understanding the value of artistic production and the natural growth of materials.
  • Savor each bite of the food by incorporating all your senses of hearing, feeling, and tasting.

In 2017, a study put mindful eating into practice for women with breast cancer. The researchers implemented a 12-week program that included dietary counseling, group mindfulness sessions, and telephone support for the patients. The program resulted in significant weight loss for those patients who successfully followed the mindful eating program, whereas those who did not follow the program did not lose weight.

The researchers suggest that health professionals can use this program as an effective way for weight reduction as a preventive measure for breast cancer. In addition, doctors can also use this program for the maintenance of breast cancer patients who have just completed treatment.

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