What Should You Eat While Fighting Cancer?

When researchers reviewed more than 50 observational studies looking for links between diet and cancer, they found significant differences in cancer occurrence, recurrence, and death rates among people who did and did not follow a traditional Mediterranean-style diet.

Overall, those who follow a similar diet appear to be at a lower risk of dying from any type of cancer. When the researchers looked at specific types of cancer, they found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet pattern had lower rates of colorectal, breast, gastric, prostate, liver, and head and neck cancer, while no significant association was found between this type of diet and other cancer locations. (20,21) Another study that looked at the Mediterranean diet for heart disease prevention found that the diet also appears to protect specifically against breast cancer in postmenopausal women. (22)

The ingredients of a Mediterranean-style diet — fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and olive oil — are not all individually associated with a reduced risk of cancer. It’s not possible to analyze every individual food in the context of its relationship to every type of cancer. Rather, together, and as part of an overall approach to healthy living, these foods form the basis of a plant-based dietary pattern that may help prevent many forms of cancer. Other aspects of the diet and associated lifestyle, such as eating less meat and fewer high-fat dairy products, using flavorful seasonings other than salt, getting more exercise, and enjoying meals in a celebratory fashion with family and friends, also contribute to its healthfulness. (23)

Researchers point out, however, that although there seems to be an association between following a Mediterranean-style diet and some reduced cancer risks, the evidence for some cancers is stronger than for others, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” plan to help prevent and treat different types of cancer. Other global cuisines that incorporate similar types of food, eaten in similar ways, can be equally healthful.

And just as different stages of cancer are subject to different treatment recommendations, individual diet guidelines are also advised. (21) For instance, if you’re undergoing radiation or chemotherapy treatment, you may have side effects that include gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, or constipation that will affect the way you eat. (21) You may need to adjust your diet, and even cut back on some of the healthier foods you normally eat, such as some high-fiber foods, until these symptoms subside.

I’m not a doctor, but I can offer some general dietary guidelines that people with cancer often consider. It’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian who specializes in oncology to create a personalized nutrition plan tailored to your specific needs and type of cancer. Here are some general tips that may be helpful:

What Should You Eat While Fighting Cancer?

  1. Balanced Diet: Aim for a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of foods from all food groups. This ensures you get essential nutrients to support your overall health.
  2. High-Nutrient Foods: Focus on foods that are nutrient-dense, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods provide vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support your immune system.
  3. Protein: Protein is crucial for maintaining muscle mass and aiding in the healing process. Sources of lean protein include poultry, fish, beans, tofu, and dairy products (if tolerated).
  4. Hydration: Stay well-hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, preferably water. Dehydration can be a concern during cancer treatment.
  5. Fiber: Incorporate fiber-rich foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables into your diet to help with digestion and prevent constipation, which can be a side effect of some cancer treatments.
  6. Small, Frequent Meals: Eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day can help manage side effects such as nausea and loss of appetite.
  7. Avoid Excess Sugar: Limit foods and beverages high in added sugars, as they can contribute to weight gain and may not support overall health.
  8. Limit Processed Foods: Minimize the intake of processed and heavily processed foods, which may contain additives and preservatives that could be detrimental to health.
  9. Individualized Approach: Work with a dietitian to tailor your diet to your specific needs, as cancer and its treatment can affect each person differently.
  10. Special Considerations: Depending on your diagnosis and treatment, you may have specific dietary requirements or restrictions. For example, some cancer treatments can affect the gastrointestinal tract, making it necessary to modify your diet temporarily.

It’s crucial to communicate openly with your healthcare team about your dietary preferences, concerns, and any side effects you may be experiencing. They can provide guidance and support throughout your cancer journey.

Remember that nutrition is just one aspect of cancer treatment and recovery. It should complement your overall medical treatment plan, which may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, or other interventions. Your healthcare team will work together to provide you with the best care possible.

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