According to the National Cancer Institute, by the end of 2018, “over half a million Americans will lose their lives to cancer, and more than 1.7 million men and women will be newly diagnosed with this devastating illness.” What you eat plays an important role, whether you’re trying to prevent cancer, going through treatment, or are in remission. We will discuss the nutritional recommendations regarding cancer prevention, after the diagnosis, and survivorship.
There are many lifestyle choices that may help reduce your risk of cancer. Your diet is one of the most important factors within your control. Here are some general guidelines to help reduce your risk of cancer through healthy lifestyle choices:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- This will help reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases as a higher BMI increases your risk of developing more than 13 different types of cancer. This occurs due to the systemic inflammation brought on by obesity.
- Eat fewer high-calorie, high-fat foods that are low in nutrients.
- When you fill up on energy-dense foods such as packaged and processed foods, you leave little room for healthful, cancer-protective foods. It can also lead to weight gain since they are usually higher in fat, calories, and added sugar.
- Choose plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- You should fill at least half of your plate with nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. Be sure to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables in all different colors to ensure you are consuming the necessary vitamins and minerals.
- Limit your alcohol intake.
- Regular alcohol intake may increase your risk of developing certain cancers, including mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast, colon, and rectum. If you do choose to consume alcohol, limit consumption to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Alcohol consumption is considered most harmful when combined with smoking.
- Increase your fiber intake.
- Fiber plays a key role in digestive health and may help prevent digestive system cancers including stomach, mouth and larynx. Fiber can be found in foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
- Choose healthy fats.
- Try adding more unsaturated fat into your diet. This provides anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids which are good for your brain and heart health. Unsaturated fat can be found in salmon, tuna, flaxseeds, walnuts, and olive oil. Avoid trans fat (aka: partially hydrogenated oil) found in packaged and fried foods as this is inflammatory and can interfere with certain hormone levels.
- Consume whole foods first.
- Most importantly, try to meet your nutritional needs through whole foods before using supplements. Whole foods are nutrient-rich and more cancer-protective.
- Prepare your food in healthy ways.
- While you should eat a variety of colors in your fruits and vegetables, you should also eat a combination of raw and cooked veggies. Raw fruits and vegetables tend to have higher amounts of vitamins and minerals while cooking can make certain vitamins more readily available to the body. You should also wash all your fruits and vegetables before consumption. Garlic, ginger, and curry powder will not only add flavor, but also valuable cancer-fighting nutrients.
After the Diagnosis
The main nutritional goals during cancer treatment are to continue to maintain a healthy body weight and consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods to provide your body with the calories and nutrients to heal and recover from treatment. A general healthy eating pattern during the treatment stage should include plenty of veggies and fruit, moderate amounts of whole grains, plant sources (nuts, beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh), and modest portions of fish, poultry, lean meats, and dairy foods. Here are some common treatment side effects that may impact nutritional well-being and various ways to combat them:
- Changes in appetite and unwanted weight loss.
- Loss of appetite is common during cancer treatments. This can lead to weight loss, inability to heal, and eventually malnutrition. If undernutrition becomes severe enough, it can interfere with proper functioning of the heart, liver, kidneys, and immune system. You can try eating 5-6 smaller meals per day, keeping your favorite high-calorie foods and drinks within reach. Your largest meal should be eaten when you are most hungry and the high protein foods should be eaten first when your appetite is strongest. Engaging in regular physical activity may also work to stimulate your appetite.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Nausea and vomiting, caused by chemotherapy or radiation, can make it difficult for you to eat and drink. Helpful tips include sipping on clear liquids at room temperature as they are easier to tolerate. Liquids should be sipped between meals instead of with meals. Avoid foods with strong odors as well as high-fat, greasy, spicy or overly sweet foods. Try to eat sitting up and keep your head elevated for at least one hour after eating.
- Tiredness can be related to the cancer itself or it can be one of the common side effects of treatment. You can temporarily rely on ready-to-eat foods such as frozen vegetables and fruit. When you feel that you have more energy, try preparing larger batches of food and freeze leftovers in meal-size portions. Be sure to stay hydrated as dehydration can exacerbate feelings of fatigue. Great hydration options include water, clear juices, sports drinks, broth, or weak tea.
- Bowel changes.
- In the instance that you experience diarrhea, be sure to drink plenty of liquids while eating small amounts of soft, bland foods. During this time, you should concentrate on decreasing your intake of high-fiber foods such as nuts, seeds, raw fruits and veggies, and whole grain breads and cereals.
- If you are experiencing a period of constipation, try consuming more healthy beverages to keep your digestive system active. Options include water, prune juice, warm juices, decaffeinated teas, and hot lemonade. During this time, you should concentrate on increasing your intake of high-fiber foods.
- Changes in taste and smell.
- Some people may experiences changes in taste and smell due to treatment side effects that may interfere with your desire to eat. Start by choosing foods that appeal to you and can be eaten at cooler temperatures as they will have less aroma and taste. You could also try marinades and spices to mask strange tastes. If certain foods begin to taste bitter or salty, you can add a small amount of sugar to combat this. Brushing your teeth and tongue regularly, and especially before eating, will help with taste changes as well.
- Sore mouth or throat.
- Some people may experience inflammation of the mucus membranes that line the mouth and throat, making it difficult to eat and swallow. In this case, avoid dry, coarse or rough foods. Try softening foods with extra sauces, dressings, or gravies and drinking plenty of fluids to moisten food further. Avoiding alcohol, citrus, caffeine, vinegar, spicy and acidic foods will also help.
- Unwanted weight gain.
- Whether from inactivity or medicine, a common side effect of cancer treatment is weight gain. To combat this issue, focus of foods that are naturally low in calories and high in fiber. This will help you feel fuller, longer. High-fiber foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Another tip is to pay attention to portion sizes and concentrate on filling your plate with plant-based foods.
- Low white blood cell counts and infection.
- If you have been diagnosed with cancer and undergone treatment, you will have a weakened immune system. This puts you at an increased risk of infection. There are certain precautions you must take to avoid harmful bacteria and food-bourne illness. To begin, do not eat raw or undercooked animal products such as meat, pork, poultry, eggs, and fish. You should thoroughly wash all fruits and veggies prior to consumption and avoid eating foods from communal places like salad bars and buffets. It is recommended that you not drink untested well water or water directly from lakes, rivers, streams, or springs. If you choose to drink filtered water, be sure to change the filter regularly.
Once you are in remission, your main goals are to maintain a healthy weight, follow a healthy eating pattern, and engage in regular physical activity. There are other ways to improve your health following cancer treatment. They are as follows:
- Fill up on nutrient-dense foods.
- Try to fill 2/3 of your plate with fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes with 1/3 or less of your plate with meat- or plant-based protein.
- Limit your consumption of red and processed meats.
- You should be limiting your consumption of red and processed meats to 18 oz. or less per week. Total avoidance of processed meats like cold cuts, bacon, sausage, and ham is recommended.
- Limit your alcohol intake.
- Should you choose to consume alcohol, it should be limited to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. One drink is defined as 12 oz. of beer, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof distilled spirit, or 5 oz. of wine.
- Avoid sugary drinks and energy-dense foods.
- Energy-dense foods are defined as high-fat, high calorie ‘fast foods’ that are highly packaged or processed. Examples include prepared baked goods, desserts, potato chips, French fries, hotdogs, etc. A diet higher in foods like these will not leave enough room for healthy, nutrient-rich foods.
- Try to meet nutritional needs through diet alone.
- Consuming nutrient-rich whole foods is a better option to ensure proper nutrition over supplements and oral vitamins. Whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes contain fiber and phytochemicals that are necessary for good health. Plant-based foods also contain many cancer-fighting compounds that some supplements may be missing. Most importantly, supplements and vitamins are not regulated by the FDA, or any regulatory agency, so we can’t be certain what they actually contain.
Written by Sarah Brunner, RDN, CD; Elite Sports Clubs Registered Dietitian
Sarah is certified in food allergies/intolerances and nutritional counseling, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; has a certificate in Dietetics from Mount Mary University; and a BA in Education and Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.