You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Two*: Nutrition and Eating
A Ten Part Series for Cancer Survivors/Thrivers from Your Licensed Naturopathic Doctor
Some cancer survivors tell me they always ate a healthy balanced diet, some share they were the original American junk food junkie. Most people I speak with are somewhere in the middle. Many cancer survivors tell me they know more or less what they should eat but do not always make good choices due to time, money, laziness or a particular relationship with food that harkens back to decades of less than stellar habits. What is the best diet for someone post-treatment with an eye to regaining and staying healthy? Here are my broad stroke recommendations:
1. Remove food allergens foods from your diet. It is understood that inflammation in the body is associated with cancer progression.
2. Eat food. I know this sounds odd but I have many patients who in their drive to eat well, shift over to things like instant shakes and bars often eaten standing at the kitchen counter or on the run. While there are some items from these categories that are not terrible, I always lead with emphasizing whole, recognizable food. Similarly, eat food that is less processed. Fresh or frozen often best! If you cannot understand something on a label, you probably should leave it on the shelf.
3. Do some consciousness raising about what you do eat. Keep a diet diary for a week, including a weekend. If you can, review with someone who understands nutrition. Sometimes when we take an honest look back over a week’s worth of vittles we see, wow, I really do like my carbs! Or, I guess I really don’t take in enough veggies. Or, geez, I didn’t realize how much alcohol I actually drink. Being self aware is the first step to shifting to a healthier diet. Consider inviting a friend or family member to join you for healthier eating. Community and connection, sharing ideas, offering encouragement can go a long way toward success in making dietary changes.
4. I am a strong believer in biochemical individuality and understand that no one diet will work for everyone. Naturopathic doctors have advanced training in nutrition and I aim to put it to good use when making recommendations to my cancer patients/survivors.
5. I encourage patients to bump up the veggie count. There is good and mounting evidence that not just the amount but the variety of vegetables has a protective effect. Two of the easiest ways to do this are: include one or two veggies with breakfast and eat a salad everyday. My go-to breakfast is steamed or sautéed kale, onion, garlic scrambled with eggs or tofu. Sometimes I just have steamed veggies and rice with a poached egg. Or Oatmeal with a side order of steamed carrots. I have let go of the concept of what is a breakfast food….liberating! For my one salad a day, it’s not too challenging to include 5–6–7 vegetables in that bowl and I can take to work on work days. (I purchase prewashed lettuce when my farm share ends in the winter. I find I use it more if I don’t have to wash it. I love to grate beets and radishes and red cabbage onto my salad and add the usual fare, too, like tomatoes and cucumber. I add some form of protein like a hardboiled egg, leftover grilled chicken or salmon, legumes or nuts, a healthy drizzle with an olive oil and vinegar mix, a forkful of fermented veggies and there’s my yummy salad!) And then another one or two veggies with dinner and I have reached a goal I set for myself of 8–10 veggies a day.
6. Consider stopping or at least seriously reducing alcohol intake. Research shows us that the more you drink the more at risk you are for developing certain kinds of cancer.
7. Introduce and keep up with cultured foods each day. Sauerkraut, pickles, miso, yogurt, etc. This helps to diversify your gut flora which helps with immune function. About 80% of your immune system arises from your gut and we’re dependent on your immune system to do its job!
8. Reducing refined sugar and overall carbohydrate intake. Studies show that overeating these foods and having a high glycemic load is associated with poorer outcomes. By reducing refined sugar we help to make our bodies more sensitive to insulin and this in turn helps to reduce inflammation, one known trigger for cancer. In general, eat as if you were a type 2 diabetic, avoid high glycemic foods like white bread, other white foods & white potatoes. Allow yourself that one or two small pieces of dark chocolate each day if you like it, likely does some good work in your body!
9. Eat all the berries you like. Not hard to do, no known side effects and good evidence to support their anti-cancer impact.
10. Whole grains like brown rice & quinoa and legumes as well as fresh fruit in general, insure a healthy intake of fiber, and prebiotics, both essential for a well-tended digestive tract able to absorb and integrate nutrients and to support regular elimination.
11. Walnuts and other nuts are excellent source of healthy fats, fiber and protein and offer further anti-cancer impact.
12. Oils to include on a regular basis: olive oil and coconut oil, avocados all with anti cancer influence, help with flavor of course and a sense of satiety.
13. Pomegranate juice -6–8 oz per day has illustrated anti-cancer effect. Dilute it with green tea if you want to earn extra credit points! Or a cup of green tea each day if you like it. Find the decaf green tea if you have insomnia, hypertension, bladder issues or anxiety.
14. Flax seeds, buy already ground and keep in freezer, so won’t go rancid. and aim for 2 TBSP/day in or on yogurt, oatmeal or a smoothie. There is plenty of research to support this recommendation for the seed’s anti-cancer role.
15. Fish 2–3x/week if you can. Limit red meat. Eggs fine!
17. Figure out a way to include mushrooms into your diet. Examination of healing components to many culinary mushrooms point to impressive anticancer impact.
18. Some of my patients are good at food shopping and stocking most all the foods they need. They can look in the fridge and the cupboard and pull together healthy, satisfying meals from what they find. Others need more encouragement and support. I don’t care where a patient starts with their diet. I am happy to work with them or send them to a trusted colleague to help generate logical shopping lists and weekly menu plans that take into account the patient’s lifestyle, budget, cultural elements and food preferences. I do keep a running list of favorite and tasty healthy recipes on my practice website. I should also point out that it’s a rare day that anyone can do all of this — — unless they make cooking and eating a fulltime pursuit. My intention here is to list out a range of foods and to underscore the research that supports eating certain ways and yes, specific foods. But be realistic, pace yourself and make slow, gradual shifts which tend to be more enduring.
19. I also spend time with patients brainstorming about eating out, which can be a fun, social, “normal,” activity that they are looking forward to getting back to after cancer treatment. And many of my patients travel for work or pleasure or both. How can you make good choices when you eat out and how can you stay healthy on the road while also exploring unfamiliar, local cuisine? These are all conversations I welcome with patients and will write about separately in the coming months.
20.Don’t forget to eat seated at a table once in a while. Put away your phone or computer. Light a candle. Say a little something to your self or partner or friend, ground yourself a bit before introducing nourishment. Sometimes I feel like yes, the foods are important but also the attitude, the environment, the pace, the presence of mind and gratitude are equally as important related to eating, especially when we are trying to attain optimal health.
My take home advice to patients who have completed treatment is to eat a healthy-for-you diet, continue to edit and alter as time goes on. Use food as your first medicine, remember, it remains true that we are what we eat.
Additional pieces in this series:
- *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part One: Exercise
- *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Two: Nutrition and Eating
- *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Three: Intermittent Fasting
- *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Four: The Head Game
- *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Five: Botanical Medicine
- *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Six: Off Label Use of Pharmaceuticals
- *You Finished Treatment, Now What? Part Seven: Nutritional Supplements