An expert offers feasible tips on how patients with cancer can eat better — from incorporating quick and easy protein sources to effective supermarket shopping strategies.
One of my goals as the medical director of breast surgery at Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center is to make it easier for patients with cancer to eat well.
Patients with breast cancer and survivors are often told that a healthy lifestyle is a key factor in successfully treating cancer and keeping it from recurring. However, the practical advice for how to incorporate better nutrition into an already full life isn’t always provided. One of the ways I’m providing my patients with this advice is by leading grocery store tours twice a month along with dietitians from Hackensack Meridian Health and ShopRite of Belmar, New Jersey.
It can be challenging for people to know what foods are healthy with the abundant fad diet information posted online, and taking time to read labels at the store can be overwhelming. I started the grocery store tours so patients can benefit from firsthand, trusted advice for grocery shopping and healthy eating. There are a few general health tips I provide my patients to help them achieve better health with nutrition.
First is to properly balance meals, to get enough protein and fiber, with 25% proteins, 25% whole grains, 35% vegetables and 15% fruits. Protein is especially important during cancer treatment for the prevention of edema (swelling).
For those too tired or sick to cook, I recommend low-sugar protein powders, nuts and legumes, and lean meats that are easy to prepare.
Patients with cancer, especially those experiencing side effects from chemotherapy, often get dehydrated. Water alone isn’t enough to maintain hydration, so electrolytes are needed. I recommend adding natural sources of electrolytes, such as cucumber, watermelon chunks or orange zest or peel, to water rather than buying sports drinks, which contain sugar, artificial colors or sweeteners.
Whole and unprocessed or minimally processed foods are best to keep meals simple. With packaged goods, fewer (and easily pronounceable) ingredients are better. For example, look for crackers that contain only whole wheat, oil and salt.
I completely understand the urge to reach for something easy and tasty like chips when people need a burst of energy, so I recommend preparing grab-and-go snacks ahead of time. For example, using a reusable container version of a charcuterie board with cheese cubes, berries, olives, nuts and other healthy finger foods.
Sugar is a major dietary cause of inflammation. Read labels carefully, since sugar is often hidden in packaged goods that people may not associate with it, such as bread, condiments and other products. Sugar may be labeled as glucose, fructose, cane, dextrose, sucrose, maltose and galactose. Women should have less than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day (24 grams); men should have less than 9 teaspoons of sugar per day (36 grams).
Artificial sweeteners aren’t much better and actually increase sugar cravings and craving for food in general. They can have a negative impact on the gut microbiome, which is important in healing to reduce inflammation in the body.
Lastly, grocery stores place items strategically to maximize impulse purchases of higher-profit (and usually less healthy) products, and change things up regularly to make shoppers see more choices while looking for things on their list. I tell my patients that understanding that stores present food this way helps them stick to the basics. It’s often a good idea to shop the perimeter of stores, where fresh produce, dairy, meats and seafood — rather than processed foods — are positioned.
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