How to Navigate Nutrition as a Cancer Survivor

How to Navigate Nutrition as a Cancer Survivor

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 11/8/21

Surviving cancer can change your relationship with your body. The connection between your selfhood and your physical being becomes close by necessity, and some people experience intense feelings of gratitude to and for their bodies. 
The way you treat and care for your body and what you expect from it can be radically altered by the experience of moving through diagnosis, treatment, and recovery—and that’s a good thing, because your body has worked so hard for you, and it deserves care that recognizes that. Because you’ve poured everything you have into your recovery, you may have an extremely high motivation to care well for yourself—so take advantage of the opportunity. 
What you feed yourself is a critical element of your ongoing health and wellness. While there are no foods that “cure cancer,” there are best practices for how to nourish your body into your remission and survivorship. Let’s explore what some of those dietary choices look like.
Post-cancer best practices 
The American Cancer Society makes broad dietary recommendations for cancer survivors. Because there is a direct link between obesity and cancer, their first point is that it is important to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise. Because each body is different, what works to keep your weight healthy may look different than what works for someone else, but it is a truism from the fitness world that “you can’t out-train a bad diet,” so it’s vital to have some parameters for how you’ll choose to eat as you enjoy your survivorship. 
The ACS’s next recommendations are slightly more specific: eat five or more servings of a variety of vegetables and fruits each day, choose whole grains over refined grains, limit consumption of processed and red meats, and limit alcohol (to one drink per day for women or two for men).
Most of this direction is relatively basic and direct. What’s more challenging is knowing how to create a delicious, health-promoting menu of options that doesn’t feel like “a diet.” This is where working with a pro like a nutritionist or a dietitian (ideally one who specializes in cancer care) can really open your dietary world, especially if you were more meat-and-potatoes than kale salad prior to cancer. 
Learning to cook vegetables in a tasty way can spell the difference between feeling excited to eat and feeling sentenced to a lifetime of diet food, and cookbooks like the Mayo Clinic-endorsed Cancer Survival Cookbook and online resources like The American Institute for Cancer Research’s repository of recipes featuring cancer-fighting foods can be huge helps in this endeavor. 
What to put on your plate
One of the best tips for keeping your diet nutritious, healthy, and weight-health-promoting is to cook at home more and eat fewer restaurant meals and less takeout. Being able to choose exactly how much and what type of oil, salt, and other ingredients really puts you in the driver’s seat of your nutrition (and you might be shocked to learn how much butter and seed oils are in many restaurant dishes).
Build your plate around produce, filling half of it with vegetables and fruit. This does not mean a life of wilted salads—on the contrary. Rich flavors, fun textures, and yummy sauces as in curry cauliflower and roasted brussels sprouts with balsamic make “eat your vegetables” a pleasure. Add to your plate a small portion of thoughtfully-raised protein (grass-fed or pastured animals and wild-caught fish have a preferable fat-to-protein ratio)—ideally poultry or fish—and a small portion of an unprocessed whole grain or starch, and that’s your template meal. 
Using vegetables and fruit as your mainstays and the macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) to round out your meals, you can think of this framework as a “choose your own adventure” that has plenty of room for your personal tastes and preferences. 
Eating expansively vs. category-restrictive diets 
Following the ACS guidelines is an important starting point, but what if you’re curious about delving deeper into the world of specialized diets? Macrobiotic, vegan, vegetarian, alkaline, and keto diets are all touted by their proponents as potential magic health bullets. For this reason, each of these diets is popular with cancer survivors, but research points to the importance of including all food groups into a sustainable long-term diet,so it’s a good idea to work with a qualified professional to make sure you’re getting all your needs met if you want to go on a more restrictive food plan. 
Honoring your body through nutrition
Your body has been through a lot, and you now get the chance to fortify it for the years ahead. Food is many things to people—nutrition, pleasure, community, culture, comfort, and more. Considering your relationship with food and your body is a wonderful act of self-care as you move forward into your survivorship and make choices that nourish you: mind, body, and spirit.

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