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After a Cancer Diagnosis – What Should I Be Eating?

Emily Biever, MS, RD

After a cancer diagnosis, many individuals are motivated to find the best foods to eat for their diagnosis. This often leads to reading books, searching the Internet and using the media for guidance. In addition to these sources, it’s not uncommon to receive recommendations on what to eat from well-intending friends and family. Information from all these sources can leave a newly diagnosed person feeling overwhelmed and confused. The following article aims to provide clarity and solid ground on how to move forward in nourishing your body after a cancer diagnosis.

Although there are many extreme diets that claim to benefit cancer patients, the most up-to-date evidence shows that dietary recommendations do not drastically change from before a diagnosis and afterward. Authors of the 2018 Continuous Update Project, (a comprehensive analysis of cancer prevention and survival research), suggest that patients follow the dietary patterns and lifestyle recommendations that are associated with reduction in cancer occurrence. Recommendations include consuming a primarily plant-based, whole food diet, while reducing intake of foods that are processed and are associated with inflammation and disease.

Recommendations in Detail

  1. Consume mostly plants.
    Plant-based refers to eating patterns rich in: whole grains (like oats, wheat, barley, brown rice), non-starchy vegetables (like leafy greens, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli), and fruits and pulses (like berries, beans and lentils). These foods are high in fiber and contain phytonutrients, plant “immune systems” that are helpful in healing and repairing during treatment.
  2. Eat more “whole” foods in place of processed foods.
    “Fast foods,” convenience foods, (i.e., chips, candies, white flour-based foods like breads, pastas, cakes, cookies), and sugary beverages (sports drinks, sodas, sweetened coffee beverages), are typically higher in calories, unhealthy fats, and/or added sugars, and low in immune-supporting, anti-inflammatory nutrition. These are not considered whole foods, and their intake should be limited. A quick way to determine if a food is more processed than whole, is to ask yourself whether you can identify the ingredients without looking at the label. Foods that are whole have easy to identify ingredients (think an apple, a hard-boiled egg, or plain rolled oats), while foods that are more processed and refined have longer lists of ingredients, including added sweeteners, fats, preservatives and artificial colors (think sugary cereals, snack bars, boxed macaroni and cheese).To move towards more whole foods, consider the following upgrade. Instead of consuming a packaged breakfast bar in the morning, scoop a few spoonfuls of plain yogurt into a to-go container, then add frozen berries and a small handful of nuts or seeds on top. All components of this upgraded breakfast are identifiable (whole foods), and quick and simple to prepare!
  3. Limit the amount of red and processed meats in your diet.
    Red meat (like beef, pork, lamb) and processed meats (like ham, bacon, sausages, hotdogs) have been associated with colorectal cancers, and associated with other diseases like cardiovascular disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Aim to limit intake of red meat to no more than 3 servings per week, or no more than 18 ounces of cooked meat per week. Recommendations for processed meats are to consume little to none. To lower red and processed meats in your diet, replace with a variety of lean poultry, fish, beans, lentils, dairy and/or eggs.
  4. Balance your meals to maximize your nutrient intake.
    Modifications to these suggestions may be necessary if you start to experience side effects of treatment, or if you are already experiencing side effects from your diagnosis. An example may be choosing lower fiber-containing vegetables and grains if you are having digestive issues. Without any side effects or issues consuming a normal diet, aim to build plates at mealtimes with 50% of your meal coming from colorful vegetables or fruit, 25% from whole grains and 25% from lean proteins.
  5. Find healthful foods that also please your taste buds.
    This is a sustainable way to nourish yourself instead shifting into a way of eating that feels restrictive or like dieting. If you have an aversion to kale, no worries! Find another green vegetable to include in your diet instead. If you need help coming up with healthful foods that you also enjoy eating, reach out to the nutrition staff at your cancer hospital to help!