A healthful diet, physical exercise and proper body weight contribute to well-being at any age. These lifestyle goals are particularly important during and after treatment for most health problems, including breast cancer.
"A lot of the same [nutrition] principles apply to eating right during and after treatment," says Cortney Malcher, a registered dietitian and a certified specialist in oncology at the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven.
In counseling breast cancer patients who wish to change and improve their eating habits, Malcher points to the food plan recommended by the American Institute for Cancer Research. "They recommend a mostly plant-based diet with limited red meat and processed meats," she says. "The diet is heavy on vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins."
The AICR proposes meals that are at least two-thirds vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans and one-third or less animal protein. The most colorful vegetables and fruits – dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, carrots, blueberries and strawberries are examples – contain the most nutrients and antioxidants.
Making small diet changes over time works better than many major changes at once, Malcher says. "We try to get people to realize that any kind of change is a change for the better," she says. "If [the patient] is not used to eating a lot of vegetables, we try to give them menu ideas. We suggest incorporating new things slowly or trying new preparation methods. If they're used to a salad that's all romaine or iceberg lettuce, mix in some spinach. Try asparagus on the grill or roasted in the oven. Try a mashed sweet potato, which has more antioxidants [than a white potato]."
An important change that Malcher suggests is replacing processed and fast foods with fresh, from-scratch meals. "In today's society, people are pressed for time," she says. "The assumption is that it's easier to pick up something that's prepared or that healthy eating is expensive. There are many recipes that are easy and quick to make that won't cost a lot of money — and you can have control over what you're adding." Cooks who prepare from-scratch meals, even simple ones, have better control over the amounts of salt and fat added.
Plant-based proteins such as beans and quinoa — one of the only grains that are a complete protein, Malcher says — as well as egg whites and low-fat dairy are excellent, lower-fat options to animal proteins. Soy products such as tofu offer another vegetarian source of protein, although soy contains estrogen-like properties that could affect cancer risk. Current research suggests more positive effects. For that reason, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that three servings of soy protein foods — edamame, tofu, soy cheese or yogurt – a day is a safe amount.
Chicken breast, turkey and fish are leaner proteins than red meat. The AICR recommends limiting red meat to less than 18 ounces a week, which works out to six 3-ounce portions. For cancer protection, the group advises cutting processed meats from the diet.
When planning meals based on the AICR recommendations or building a salad, aim for colorful ingredients. "It may sound silly, but think of a rainbow," Malcher says. "Think of all of the colors of the rainbow in order to get all of the phytochemicals that give vegetables their color."
Fresh fruit also will lend color and fiber to the diet. "Berries such as blueberries and blackberries, pomegranates and prunes contain high amounts of antioxidants," the dietitian says. If a patient doesn't care for whole fruit, Malcher suggests juicing. "It's a great way to get people to try other fruits and might be easier to digest."
For those who need to lose weight, Malcher advises shedding those pounds slowly. "Being overweight can increase the risk of [cancer] reoccurrence and risk," she says. "Watch portion sizes and set a goal of [losing] no more than one or two pounds a week. You'll have longer term success with slower weight loss."
"Weigh loss and eating habits are really a lifestyle change," Malcher says. "Any small change will be helpful. Once you make a change, you often start feeling better and are willing to make more changes. Don't get discouraged."
For more information about diet recommendations and nutrition, visit the http://www.aicr.org (American Institute for Cancer Research; http://www.cancer.gov (American Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health; http://www.cancer.org (American Cancer Society), and http://www.eatright.org (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun