How diet can support your recovery from cancer
Making positive food choices to nourish a healthy life
10 January 2024
Australians are becoming increasingly aware of the role that a healthy diet plays in reducing disease and the lasting impact that simple changes such as boosting your intake of fruit, veggies and wholegrain foods can have. But did you know that a healthy diet can also support your recovery after cancer treatment?
Cancer dietitian, nutritionist and Valion Health dietitian Jane Freeman tells us more.
Taking control of your diet
During cancer treatment and recovery, it can feel as though you’ve lost control over your body and health, with much of your journey being in the hands of your specialists and other healthcare professionals. Jane says that making improvements to your diet is one area where you can really take the reins and make a difference.
“Making positive changes to diet really empowers patients and gives them a sense of control and some comfort, especially in the post-treatment phase when they might be worried about recurrence and other things they can’t control.”
Small but mighty!
Jane says the secret to success is making lifestyle improvements that are right for you. Everyone has their own starting point, a unique experience of cancer and treatment, and different priorities going into their recovery stage so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But there are small, simple changes that everyone can take on board. The Cancer Council recommends:
- eating a variety of raw and cooked vegetables, fruit and legumes (e.g. chickpeas and lentils)
- enjoying plenty of grains and wholegrain cereals (including breads, rice, pasta and noodles)
- eating small serves of red meat, no more than 400g a week, and on the other days choosing fish, poultry, tofu, canned beans or lentils
- choosing foods that are low in salt
- avoiding too much fat, especially saturated fat (be aware of hidden fats in snack food, processed food, cakes and takeaway food)
- choosing low fat yoghurt, cheese and milk.
Jane says that the key to achieving long-lasting positive change lies in making small and simple improvements that are easy to put in place and stick to over a sustained period.
“The most important thing for people to remember is that a perfect diet all the time is not the goal. Sometimes meeting a friend for a slice of cake and a chat delivers more health benefits than a bowl of carrots, and for dietary improvements to be sustainable we need to make them around our life.”
The power of protein
After the recovery stage, ‘normal life’ commitments start returning and people look to get back to the activities they enjoy. But it’s important to remember that the body is still rebuilding and Jane says it’s important to boost your protein intake to increase your strength and energy at this time.
“Unlike fats and carbohydrates, our bodies don’t store protein, so it’s really important to try and get protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner to rebuild muscle and energy levels.”
So where can you find good sources of protein? In addition to limited servings of red meat, the Cancer Council recommends:
- lean poultry
- legumes (such as lentils and chickpeas)
- seeds and nuts.
Check your calcium
Jane says another challenge for people recovering from cancer can be maintaining calcium and Vitamin D levels – a common deficiency but one that can easily be checked.
“I always remind people to get a blood test to help work out which key nutrients are missing and how they can be balanced. In some cases it’s as simple as having a cappuccino every morning!”
Supplements (save your money!)
Jane says in most cases nutrient deficiencies can be addressed with diet alone and cautions against using expensive supplements and vitamins, which she says lack evidence to support their effectiveness.
“We know that the nutrients you’re getting from wholefoods such as apples or spinach are much better than any supplements you can buy, and the money spent on supplements is much better spent on purchasing beautiful fresh food.”
Busting food myths
It easy to get lost down a rabbit hole when it comes to finding information on the internet (hello, Dr Google!) and searches often lead to scary and incorrect information. Jane says this is certainly the case when it comes to finding information about diet and cancer.
“There are a couple of persistent myths out there which just keep circulating, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. The biggest one is sugar.
“If I had a dollar for every person who asked me whether sugar feeds cancer, I’d be rich! Glucose is our main fuel and feeds our entire body. Cutting out sugar will not starve cancer cells, our bodies just kick in and use our stores instead which can lead to burnout.
“Instead of cutting sugar people are better off eating a healthier diet and getting more exercise, that’s way more effective than cutting sugar to reduce the risk of cancer,” she said.
One of the other common cancer myths surrounds the consumption of soy, which Jane says actually has a protective effect for breast cancer survivors.
“As with most foods, moderate amounts of soy milk, edamame and tofu are quite healthy, and soy is an excellent form of protein that delivers an equivalent amino acid profile to animal proteins.”
Everything in moderation
When it comes to making sustainable diet changes that will support your recovery from cancer and improve your overall health and wellbeing, the key is everything in moderation.
“With every meal there are choices to make, and you should just try and do your best most of the time. It’s all about balance and enjoying food as a part of a healthy life experience. If at the end of the week after eating seven days’ worth of meals you come out on top then that’s a win!”
Valion Health supports eligible Teachers Health members through the Cancer Support Program.