Healthy Eating for Survivors and Caregivers

By Christine Benjamin - October 16, 2013

Eating healthy is crucial for all of us. It is especially important for those who have experienced breast or ovarian cancer, as a healthy diet and lifestyle can help prevent cancer from recurring. It is also vital for caregivers who may have had a tough time maintaining proper nutrition while supporting a loved one through treatment. For both, making healthful changes leads to increased energy, weight management, and lowered risk factors associated with cancer.

With so many diets and information out there, it can be difficult to know what a healthy diet really looks like. Heidi Pinsky, MS, RD, Chief Nutritionist at Maimonides Cancer Center, recently shared simple keys to healthy eating for cancer survivors and caregivers.

First, she says, it's important to remember that a healthy diet is not all or nothing approach. Eat 90% healthy foods, and 10% fun foods. This will help keep you on track.

So, what is in a healthful and varied diet?

  • LOTS of different fruits & vegetables
  • LOTS of whole unrefined grains
  • Beans/legumes
  • Lean proteins like fish, chicken, and turkey

What's not?

  • Red, processed meats like cold cuts, hot dogs, bacon, & sausage. These are associated with a high risk of cancer. Every 1.7 oz of processed meat consumed raises the risk of colorectal cancer by 21%.
  • Preservatives and sugar; salty & processed foods that come in a box.
  • Excessive alcohol (more than 1 drink/day for women and 2/day for men).
  • Sugary drinks. In addition to soda, this includes some healthy-sounding options like sports drinks, energy drinks, and fruit punch.

How to develop a healthier lifestyle: The BIG FOUR

Adopt a plant-based diet.
Stay away from dietary supplements to protect against cancer; instead eat whole foods. They are delicious, healthy, and full of antioxidants that reverse cell damage. These are found in pigments of fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, red grapes, onions, and garlic.

Choose healthy fats.
These include omega-3 fatty acids, fish, olive oil, chia seeds, and flax seeds. Flax seeds have been shown to reduce risk and recurrence of breast cancer. Limit saturated/trans fat intake and whole fat dairy, cheeses, and fast /processed foods.

Manage weight and exercise.
Watch portion sizes. Over weight increases inflammation in the body and cell change. Physical activity helps with weight loss, brain and cardiovascular health, and boosts your mood. The ideal guideline is 30+ minutes/day, 5 days/week.

Improve bone health.
The best ways to get calcium and Vitamin D are from foods that are rich in those vitamins. If you do need supplements, pick ones that have been USP certified.

Heidi also addressed some of the big questions/myths surrounding cancer and certain foods.

What is the connection between red meat and cancer?
Dangerous chemicals are formed when muscle meat is cooked with high temp methods including grilling and frying. These can be avoided by reducing direct exposure of meat to a hot metal surface, cooking slowly at low temperature, or using a microwave to partially cook meat to reduce cooking/grilling time.

RECOMMENDATION: Eating up to 18 oz of red meat per week does not increase cancer risk. Try to eat fruits and vegetables alongside meat as their natural antioxidants can help clean up damage caused by free radicals.

Does sugar feed cancer?
No. However, consuming too much sugar, especially refined sugar, causes the body to produce insulin, which manages surge of sugar in the blood. This is the hormone that creates cell growth, and thus sugar can cause cancer cells to proliferate.

Does the designation "organic" negate presence of GMO?
NO. The label must say "No GMOs." It is recommended to eat organic when possible, but remember, eating produce whether organic or not is the best! Click here to read the Environmental Working Group's list of "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Clean 15" for produce pesticide levels.

Nine Helpful Tips to Eating Healthy:

  • Sneak fruits and vegetables in when possible (adding vegetables to pizza or fruit to oatmeal).
  • Add herbs and spices instead of salt.
  • Try one new fruit/vegetable every week.
  • Eat more whole foods, less refined and processed foods.
  • Eat whole fruit instead of juice.
  • Cook from scratch, don't overcook or process.
  • Cook with a little bit of healthy fat like olive oil.
  • Eat brown rice and whole grain products. White flour is a refined food.
  • Instead of drinking wine, eat grapes or drink grape juice for Resveratrol, the heart healthy nutrient found in wine.

These simple tips can have a huge impact on your health, outlook, and risk factors for cancer recurrence. The sooner you can make these healthful (and delicious) changes, the more benefits you will see. For more information, you can check out Heidi's full webinar here.


Christine Benjamin

Christine is the Breast Cancer Program Director at SHARE.