Nutrient packed foods can empower you during cancer treatment
Here’s what nutritionist Conner Middelmann wants you to know about what you eat: There is no magic superfood that can cure cancer, or keep cancer from coming back. But what you eat – and don’t eat – can make you stronger, help you feel better during cancer treatment, and may lower your risk for recurrence.
The closest thing to an anti-cancer superfood she can point to is lots and lots of vegetables and fruits. And when she says “lots,” she doesn’t just mean quantity. She means variety — everything from apples to zucchini.
“The more variety you eat, the better for you,” says Middelmann-Whitney, a nutritionist who offers community education talks to cancer patients in Boulder. As evidence, she points to a 2009 study that seems to link great diversity in vegetable and fruit consumption to a lowered breast cancer risk in women with the BRCA 1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations that are normally associated with greater cancer risk.
Not only are they packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber, they also lower inflammation. Vegetables and fruits form the backbone of the Mediterranean diet.
“The Mediterranean diet does not mean pizza and pasta,” she says. “It means olive oil, more veggies than fruits, legumes, nuts, herbs and spices, moderate amounts of meat — ideally grass-fed or pastured — and fish.” And regular intakes of fermented dairy, such as yogurt and kefir.
Just as she has no favorite anti-cancer food, there is no one food she considers a deadly weapon on a plate. Not even sugar, which is now considered neck-and-neck with fat as the greatest culinary threat to health.
“Cancer patients can get panicked by what they read online. Sugar isn’t going to give you cancer, though it is a source of empty calories. You can’t afford to waste calories on foods with no nutritional value,” Middelmann-Whitney says. Sugar also can cause blood sugar imbalance and weight gain, as well as disrupting the balance of micro-organisms that live in the digestive tract — all of which may contribute to an increased cancer risk.
Also on Middelmann-Whitney’s “least-favorite” list are processed foods. “Processing not only removes nutrients from whole foods, it also adds unnecessary and often unhealthy compounds, like flavoring, colors, sweeteners, preservatives, emulsifiers and empty fillers that our bodies don’t recognize as food.” And when you fill up on empty calories, you’re less likely to eat much more nutritious fresh, whole foods.
What exactly counts as a processed food? Most of the packaged items in the central aisles of the supermarket, that keep for months on a shelf, with labels that include numerous hard-to-pronounce ingredients, and which you couldn’t make at home, things like protein bars, breakfast cereals, sodas, cookies, candy and cake mixes. Those items are fine as an occasional snack, they shouldn’t constitute a large part of our diet, Middelmann-Whitney says. She cites food writer Michael Pollan’s admonitions: “Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, and don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
In addition, Middelmann-Whitney has other general tips:
- Nourish your gut with healthy bacteria from foods like plain yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut. If you don’t like fermented foods, a probiotic supplement may help, but check first with your doctor to make sure it is safe for you.
- If you’re obese, lose weight — after your treatment is completed — because obesity is a risk factor.
- Enjoy your food.
Eating healthy food can have powerful psychological benefits, says Middelmann-Whitney, “Cancer patients and their caregivers often feel powerless and out of control,” she says. “Choosing, preparing and enjoying healthy food can feel very empowering.”
And, she says, don’t stress about every bite. “With your diet, every beneficial thing you do, and every harmful thing you avoid, is a step in the right direction.”