I have cancer. What can I eat?

Are you facing a new cancer diagnosis and feeling lost about what to eat? Have you been reading every article about the foods you should avoid? Are you thinking that water isn’t even safe right now? Then this is the place for you. I have spent years as an oncology dietitian meeting patients with similar thoughts and concerns. It is natural to question how things in your life, including food, may impact your cancer risk. There are also a lot of beautiful and well-meaning friends who are more than excited to share their thoughts about what supplement or diet cured their next-door neighbor’s sister’s best friend from middle school.

While there is a wealth of information available, one thing that is lacking is reliable nutrition advice on the internet. I can’t even begin to tell you all the things I’ve heard! After countless panic-filled phone calls and emails, I realized that the internet desperately needs evidence based nutrition information for cancer survivors. You don’t need fear-based nutrition information that leaves you scared to eat. You deserve the truth with a side of understanding and grace. My goal is to be that source of accurate nutrition information while taking a realistic approach to your individual preferences and beliefs. So grab your favorite beverage and take a deep breath…it’s all going to be okay.

Don’t throw away your favorite foods

It’s okay. Those colorful gummies you loved as a kid didn’t cause your cancer. The bag of chocolate candy on the top shelf of your pantry isn’t a carcinogen. No, your once-a-day diet soda isn’t the reason you have cancer. Yes, you can still drink your coffee. Look, you are facing a significant diagnosis, and trying to revamp your diet and eliminate your favorite foods can lead to unnecessary stress. Do yourself a favor and process this change in your life before cleaning out the pantry. Once you feel calm and ready to make meaningful diet changes, we can chat more!

Cancer is not an excuse to lose weight without trying

Hoping to lose weight during chemotherapy…stop that thought right now! And I mean it. You are getting ready to take on cancer. Treatment can be complex, and you need to be well nourished. It is one thing to lose weight intentionally through lifestyle changes, but that’s different than unintentionally losing weight because of decreased appetite and lack of interest in eating. For many cancers, weight loss is one of the initial presenting symptoms. (1) This may be caused by hormones produced by specific cancer cells that negatively affect appetite. Cancer is not an excuse for weight loss! You need to nourish your body so you can feel your best. Think about how tired and irritable you feel when you miss a meal…hello, HANGRY! Let’s not do that. And no, you can’t starve cancer. If you find yourself having a difficult time keeping your weight on, let your medical team know asap.

Okay, so what can you eat?

Instead of focusing on foods to avoid, let’s focus on foods to choose. You can never go wrong with fruits and vegetables. Wait, let me guess. Have you heard that carrots have a high glycemic index and you should avoid them? That is not the case. Carrots are high in carotenoids which have been associated with decreased breast cancer risk in those with higher blood levels of carotenoids. (2) Potatoes are starchy, and starches are bad. Please…potatoes are high in potassium and fiber. Fiber has been associated with decreased colorectal cancer risk. (3) Avoid fruit because fruit is high in sugar. Come on! Never in the history of healthy eating have credible medical professionals suggested that fruits are bad for you. Concerned about organic vs. non-organic…eat your fruits and vegetables! Don’t worry. I’ll address your concerns about organic and conventional produce in a future post. If veggies aren’t your favorite, try raw veggies with Ranch dressing, consider roasting vegetables in the oven to bring out their natural sweetness, or add some spinach to a berry and banana smoothie. There’s no judgment here if you don’t eat kale 3 times per day…neither do I!

We’ve all been told that carbs are bad. But I’m telling you that whole grains are a PLANT, and plants are good! Just combine those whole grains with some protein to help keep your energy and strength up. So what does that look like? Whole grain crackers and cheese, peanut butter and jelly on whole grain bread, bran cereal with milk, hummus and pita chips, brown rice and beans, or eggs and whole grain English muffin.

Yup, I’m familiar with the China Study, and it is okay to consume dairy. Choose lower fat dairy like skim-milk and non-fat yogurt. Dairy is typically well tolerated when you are not feeling your best. It is high in protein, potassium, and calcium. Do you need a gallon of milk a day? No. But 2-3 servings of dairy per day is safe. Dairy may even reduce the risk of certain cancers like colorectal cancer. (4)

Fish is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Higher omega-3 fatty acid intake especially, from murine sources, has decreased cancer risk. Choosing fish twice a week is a great way to get quality protein. Only like canned tuna fish? That’s okay too!

Do you love to bake and bake when stressed but concerned about sugar? Get back in the kitchen! We’ll review all the ins and outs of sugar and cancer risk but for now, please, for the love of all baked goods, enjoy your baking. Add some fruits, vegetables, or nuts to that baking! I’m looking at you zucchini bread. Pumpkin scones, yes please! Banana nut muffins, carrot cake, maple pecan granola, apple cinnamon baked oatmeal…I could go on and on! Here are some of my favorite baked goods with added fruits and vegetables:

Zucchini Cookies with Chocolate Chips and Cranberries

Berry Streusel Bars

Feel-Good Apple Muffins

Pumpkin Scones

Cinnamon Apple Crisp

A note about stockpiling food

Many people are inclined to stock up on food before starting treatment. While everyone is different, in my experience, if you stock up on your favorite casseroles, frozen lasagna, homemade soups and chili, those are the foods you will be least interested in. Whenever someone tells me they stocked up on their favorite “fill in the blank”, the next week, they hate that food! I have no idea why this is. My only suggestion is that if you are starting cancer treatment, you can stockpile meals for your family but don’t plan on eating those meals yourself. Your taste and eating preferences may change during treatment and may vary weekly. So, sometimes it is best to not plan too far in advance.

You know you best

You know your body best, so listen to your body. You don’t have to do what some website recommends if it doesn’t work for you. Don’t let a well-meaning friend or family member pressure you into drinking celery juice with a side of dirt every morning. Hate the taste of fish? Cool, don’t eat it. No one gets to tell you what you have to eat just because you have cancer. These comments may be unintentionally hurtful and leave you feeling pressured or confused. If you receive unwelcome suggestions for what you should eat, just say, “Thank you, I’ll consider that.” or “Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll discuss it with my medical team”. Please know that most of these comments come from a place of love. Your family and friends want the very best for you and are just trying to find a way to care for and help you.

What about supplements?

Vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements can interact with certain cancer therapies. There are other supplements that may increase the risk of cancer. Please talk to your medical team about any supplements you are currently taking or any supplements are interested in starting.

I’ll update the blog with new posts weekly to provide the most recent evidence-based information to support your survivorship needs. So come back frequently or subscribe to receive the blogs in your inbox. And if you have a question that isn’t answered in a post, send me an email via the contact page. I’d love to hear from you.

References

  1. https://lungcancer.net/symptoms/appetite-weight-loss/
  2. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/101/6/1197/4564570?papetoc
  3. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaoncology/fullarticle/2661061
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7023298/
  5. https://www.aicr.org/news/fish-and-cancer-risk-4-things-you-need-to-know/
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