With their cancer diagnosis, many people want to get more proactive with their health. That includes following a healthy diet with foods that nourish the body, fight cancer and support the immune system. Advice is everywhere, and can be confusing. In this article, we’ll break it down to some simple steps to help you set up a plan that works for you and launches your new diet.
Start With the Big Picture
First, a healthy diet is plant based. Visually, imagine one quarter of your plate protein, one-quarter starch and fully one half as vegetables and fruit. This will give you a nicely balanced diet, with protein as a repair and building tool, starch as an energy source and vegetables for antioxidants to protect and repair tissue and vitamins for your overall health.
Eat fresh foods as much as possible. Avoid processed foods, like luncheon meats, frozen dinners, canned soups, and dry package mixes. In this way, you’ll be getting the highest quality food and the least amount of additives.
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily. These are a good source of fiber, which supports the intestinal tract, the first line of defense in the body. They are also top sources of antioxidants to fight cancer. Here’s where variety is important. Different colors represent different antioxidants, so by varying the colors, you will get a fuller complement of nutrients.
Keep the protein lean and modest in portion. Poultry and fish are the best choices as they have the least amount of saturated fats, which tend to stress the body. Avoid cooking meat at very high temperatures, such as grilling. This produces carcinogens. As an alternative to animal protein, try going meatless a few days a week. Legumes and tofu are high quality protein substitutes.
Eat whole grains every day. They are an excellent source of fiber, which supports the immune system’s first line of defense, the intestine. Whole grains also contain antioxidants (vitamin E) and minerals (magnesium) that tend to be low in our diets. Finally, this food group tends to modulate insulin levels, which makes a tougher environment for cancer cells.
Focus on healthy fats. While it is best to follow a low fat diet overall, keep in mind that some fats are better than others. Favor plant-based oils, such as olive, canola and nut oils. As mentioned above, saturated fats, which are found in all types of meat, as well as dairy products and butter, should be kept to a minimum. The one exception in the animal kingdom is omega 3 fat, which is found in salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel and other cold-water fish. This fat reduces inflammation, creating an environment in your body that supports health and discourages cancer cells from growing.
Make healthy snacks part of your diet. Get rid of junk food, from chips to candy bars. Snack on fruit, whole grain crackers, salsa, hummus, bean dips, dried fruits and nuts. If you do indulge in less healthy snacks, be selective – go for high quality in small amounts.
Come Up With a Plan
How do your eating habits stack up against this healthy outline? Do an honest assessment of what you are eating. Keeping a food journal for a week or so may help you pinpoint areas that need work. The next step is to pick one or two areas you want to work on. Making changes will be easier if you plan ahead. That means writing out menus, shopping for ingredients and making sure you have time to put it all together. Making changes in the way you do things will take time until you get used to the new routine.
As you embark on your journey of change, build a supportive network around you. Talk to other people who have made changes, talk to cooks, or seek out new markets, new foods. Include your family and friends in the process. In other words, stay involved. If you findit difficult to go it alone, contact a registered dietitian (RD) for assistance. RDs are food experts with medical training. They can help you formulate realistic goals, create diet plans that are right for you, provide recipes and encourage you on your path to health.
In setting a goal, keep it real. Some people are good at doing an instant, total overhaul. But most of us need to move more slowly. And if you are in the midst of chemo or radiation and feeling lousy, this may not be the time to make big changes. Go for something small and doable. No matter if they are big or small, goals should be specific and measurable. Instead of something like: I will eat less red meat, you could say: I will eat no more than 3 ounces of red meat per week.
Say your goal is to increase the variety of vegetables in your diet. You now eat string beans, corn, peas and carrots. You want to add kale, as you hear it is one of the most potent anti-cancer vegetables out there. You want to eat it twice a week. Note how specific this goal is. You’ve mentioned a particular food (kale) and a measurable objective (eat it twice a week).
Since you’ve never cooked kale before, the next thing you want to do is find a couple of recipes that look good to you. Browse the Internet, or go to the library or bookstore and look through cookbooks. Talk with people who cook with kale. Once you have your recipes, you are ready to shop. If you can, it’s worth checking out your local supermarkets, farmers markets and grocers to look for the freshest, best quality produce.
At home, kale in hand, try out one of the new recipes. Give yourself time. If it doesn’t come out well the first time, try it again, or try a different recipe. Give yourself two or three weeks to work with a new food before moving on to something else. Remember, you don’t have to like every healthy food out there. Find the ones you enjoy.