San Francisco-based Heather Millar is a breast cancer survivor. A journalist for more than 25 years, she has covered health care and science for many national magazines and websites.
If following a particular diet makes sense to you, and you can tolerate it, then by all means do so. But I beg you to remember that even unhealthy things won't kill you in moderation.
I belong to a cancer support group that has a daily email round-up, and there's been much talk lately about food and diet regimens. Some folks are reacting to diagnosis by going mostly vegetarian. Others are embracing a ketogenic diet that emphasizes low-carbs and high-fat. Still, others are alternating fasting days with ketogenic days. And then there are the folks who believe that extremely low protein diets will starve their cancer of the materials it needs to grow. Some people believe that cancer patients should only eat organic meat; others say no to any meat.
And then, someone piped up the thread, saying something like this, "I find that all this talk of diets just triggers me. It makes me more anxious."
To which I say, "Hallelujah."
I've lost 35 pounds in the last year, and I drank wine while doing it. I even had the occasional burger. I ate cookies. I even ate fried things. I ate candy. I ate popcorn. With butter.
Most of the time, though, I didn't do those things. Five days out of seven, I didn't drink alcohol. Six days out of seven, I ate mostly fruits and vegetables and kept a running calorie count in my head. Instead of lunch, I'd have a high-protein snack, like a quarter cup of nuts or a couple of hard-boiled eggs. I ate a lot of whole grains like farro and bulgur and quinoa. Here's a recipe for sheer deliciousness: Cut up just about any vegetable, toss it with olive oil, salt pepper and spices, roast it. Put it on top of some whole grain, greens and some cheese crumbles. Yum. It’s low-calorie, and you won't be hungry for hours.
Every week, I allowed myself a "cheat day," usually Saturday. On Saturday, I would also go on a very long bike ride to counteract the effects of the treats I'd allow myself.
Americans have long believed in the redemptive power of diets. Cola, graham crackers, corn flakes - all these things first hit the nation's palate as part of diet plans that would supposedly change the country. I grew up in northern California, source of many diet fads, and my mother tried all kinds of crazy diets when I was a kid, even one called the "chocolate cake diet." Magical thinking indeed.
If following a particular diet makes sense to you, and you can tolerate it, then by all means do so. But I beg you to remember that even unhealthy things won't kill you in moderation. If you have a second glass of wine, that doesn't lead directly to metastasis.
Our culture really struggles with the concept of moderation. Five years ago, when I helped a doctor to write a low-sugar cookbook, we got critical Amazon reviews because the book included dessert recipes. Those readers missed the point: We weren't encouraging no sugar, but low sugar. We weren't saying never have dessert. We were saying don't have it with every meal. When you drink or have dessert, do it just one or two days a week. And when you do indulge, make it count. Make it delicious. Food is one of the reasons to enjoy life. Don't turn it into purgatory.
I think this is a difficult idea for many of us: When you follow a diet; stick to it six out of seven days. When you cheat, enjoy it.
I adore onion rings. They have absolutely no nutritive value: They're full of fat, salt, crunch and not much else. But when I've had them in the last year, they were sublime. And note: I usually didn't finish this treat. A "3-point bloomin' onion" at Outback Steakhouse has more than 3,000 calories, topping the original 2,000-calorie appetizer with steak and cheese.
On your cheat day, remember you've also got to live in the real world. You can't run out an eat three hamburgers and gallon of Rocky Road ice cream. You can't have five cocktails. You can't eat a pound of Brie cheese.
Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, said, "Moderation in all things." We've been quoting him for thousands of years for a reason. Enjoy the things you love; but share that bloomin' onion for heaven's sake.