Nutrition: Before, During and After Breast Cancer

By admin
September 18, 2013

Rebecca Turner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

Cancer, now the leading cause of death throughout the world, according to the World Health Organization, is likely to touch every household. With breast cancer being one of the top five cancers to cause the most deaths each year, women and their families should be proactive and focus on prevention. As a dietitian, I believe choosing healthy lifestyle habits like daily exercise, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and eating nutrient rich foods at every meal can help reduce the risk of cancer or a relapse.

One way to help lessen the threat of breast cancer or its recurrence is to maintain a healthy weight. Studies suggest that women with a body mass index (BMI) over 25 have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer or of it coming back compared to women who maintain a healthy weight, especially after menopause.

While it is unlikely that food is the single cause or cure of cancer, eating well can not only lower the risk of developing cancer, but may also help those undergoing treatment endure it more successfully and thrive after treatment. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy foods contain the nutrients we need to maintain health. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPlate is a great tool to help us be more mindful of which foods make up a balanced eating plan.

MyPlate recommends that half your plate be filled with fruits and vegetables and for good reason. These foods are rich in phytochemicals, compounds that are produced by plants and found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. Phytochemicals have protective and disease preventive properties and are believed to protect cells from damage that could lead to cancer. Phytochemicals cannot be found in supplements and are only present in foods. Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene which help protect cells from outside damage.

Dietitian Tip: Include at least one fruit and/or vegetable at every meal and snack.

Continue to benefit from powerful phytonutrients by making a fourth of your plate whole grains. Choose whole grains such as brown rice, barley and oats. Try quinoa (keen-wa), a seed that contains more protein than any other grain and cooks up light and fluffy in only fifteen minutes. Additionally, switch to 100-percent whole grain breads, cereals and crackers.

Dietitian Tip: Review the ingredients listed on food packages; look for whole grains as the first ingredient.

Plants tend to get all the praise in the fight against cancer and chronic disease, but protein and low-fat dairy also earn their place on a winning plate. The remaining fourth of your plate should be lean proteins. Dietary protein is responsible for repairing, preserving, and creating lean-muscle. Eat a variety of protein foods including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, nuts and beans. Low-fat dairy foods provide a unique combination of protein and eight other essential nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Whether on your plate or in a glass, 3 servings of dairy – such as milk, cheese and yogurt a day, offer a powerful punch of nutrients for strong bones and a healthy body.

Dietitian Tip: Use the palm of your hand to ensure proper portion sizes of lean meat, poultry and the length of your hand for fish fillets.

In addition, protect yourself with probiotics. Probiotics, found in yogurt contain “live and active” bacteria, which according to research, can help strengthen the immune system. Not only will yogurt with good bacteria help boost your immunity, but as part of a healthy diet, it may also help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, heart disease and obesity.

Dietitian Tip: Your best probiotic picks include Greek yogurt, Kefir, and yogurts that contain Lactobacillus bacteria.

For those currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer it is important to remember that no one food or eating plan can cure cancer; yet certain foods may help control treatment side effects and help your body recover.

Dacia Green, a registered dietitian at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, acknowledges that the side effects of cancer treatment such as diminished appetite and taste changes may make the thought of eating anything difficult. “But there are few things as important to the successful recovery from cancer treatment than adequate nutrition. A patient’s immune system is compromised by chemotherapy, and needs nutrients, calories, and energy in order to overcome the effects of the disease and its treatment.” said Green.

Nausea, a common side effect of treatments, can make eating a challenge. Focus on eating small frequent meals throughout the day, rather than three large meals. Breakfast is the most important meal, and should contain at least 1/3 of your protein and calories for the day. Your body needs extra protein while you’re undergoing treatment to aid recovery, yet eating meat may cause nausea. Nibble all day on protein rich snacks such as Greek yogurt (which has twice as much protein as regular yogurt), trail mix, cheese and crackers, or steamed edemame (immature soybeans).

Dietitian Tip: To help with nausea add fresh ginger to beverages, and remember that cold foods give off less bothersome odors than hot ones.

Unwarranted weight loss is another concern during treatment. Healthy high-fat food choices such as avocado, olive oil, nuts, nut butters and sour cream can provide significant calories in a small amount. In between meals, drink smoothies made from fruit, yogurt and protein powder.

Dietitian Tip: Choose whey protein powder. It is a natural high-quality protein containing all of the essential amino acids (“building blocks”) your body needs to build and maintain muscle and is easy to digest.

These practical, healthy and tasty choices that can be made every day, at every meal and may help decrease the risk of cancer and its reoccurrence. For best results, a healthy eating plan should be paired with physical activity. Before you eat, ask yourself, “How does this food nourish me?” For survivors, ask, “Does this food protect me?”

Tips for eating well during breast cancer

Make every bite count – choose nutrient-dense, but not calorie-dense, foods and beverages rather than empty calories. Vegetable lasagna or a salad is a much better choice than a bag of chips and a can of soda pop.

 Use a stool or chair so you can sit down while cooking food if you’re tired.

 Keep foods handy that are quick and easy to prepare, such as washed baby carrots, individually packaged string cheese, or nuts and raisins. Small snacks between meals can help you eat enough protein and calories.

 Take a multivitamin only if you can’t eat enough to get your nutrients from food. Your doctor may recommend a multivitamin for you, but remember, getting your nutrients from food is best.

 Consider a liquid protein supplement if you’re having trouble getting enough protein. Commercial products are available. Ask your doctor or registered dietitian for product recommendations and other eating tips.

 Check to see if you qualify for Meals on Wheels service. The American Cancer Society also offers information on meal delivery services. Call 1-800-ACS-2345 to learn about resources in your area.

 Talk to a registered dietitian and have your diet evaluated if you’re not sure if your diet is balanced. Tell the dietitian that you’re undergoing cancer treatment and want to make sure that your diet is the best it can be.

 Have groceries delivered. Consider ordering groceries online, or phoning or faxing in an order to a store that delivers.

 Try shopping at a farmer’s market or outdoor stand if there’s one near you. You might be better able to cope with food in the open air than in a store where smells are trapped inside.

 Buy in bulk. When you’re feeling good, go shopping and buy several packages of food that will stay fresh so you don’t have to go to the store as often.

 Ask for help taking the groceries out to the car and loading them. Most stores are happy to provide this service if you ask. Or ask a friend to go shopping with you and help you put the groceries away when you get home.


When food is the last thing on your mind.

Cookbook author Holy Clegg, follows her trim&TERRIFIC approach to cooking in one of her best selling cookbooks, Eating Well Through Cancer, which she co-authored with Dr. Gerald Miletello. It is divided into chapters by common symptoms experienced during cancer treatment. Designed to help cancer patients better tolerate treatment and maintain a healthy diet, the cookbook includes over 250 recipes evaluated with regard to their nutritional value, taste, simplicity, availability of ingredients and preparation time. On the first pages of this book Holly cross references each recipe by whether it is recommended during a particular unpleasant side effect to help the reader identify those dishes that may best be tolerated.

Following are two of Holly’s recipes created to give comfort and nourishment during the difficult trials of cancer treatment.

Simple Baked Chicken

Tender chicken with gravy (tastes like chicken soup) makes a very comforting flavorsome meal. Be sure to serve with rice to soak up the last drop of gravy.

Makes 6 servings

1 1/2 pounds chicken breast tenders

1/4 cup biscuit baking mix

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 (16-ounce) can low-sodium fat-free chicken broth

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Coat 3-quart oblong baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

2. Coat chicken in baking mix and place in prepared dish. Bake 40 minutes.

3. In small nonstick pot, combine oil and garlic, and add flour. Whisk in chicken broth, bring to boil, and cook until slightly thickened. Pour over chicken, cover with foil, and continue baking another 20-30 minutes, or until chicken is done.

Nutritional information per serving: Calories 173 kcal, Calories from Fat 30%, Fat 6 g, Saturated Fat 1 g, Cholesterol 73 mg, Sodium 197 mg, Carbohydrates 3 g, Dietary Fiber 0 g, Total Sugars 0 g, Protein 25 g, Dietary Exchanges: 3 lean meat

Terrific Tip: Add more seasoning as needed if you are experiencing taste changes.

Nutrition Nugget: When not feeling well, simple, protein-rich foods such as this can help keep up your nutrition when not in the mood for anything else.

Easy Banana Bread

A short cut banana bread, thanks to the biscuit mix, makes an extremely tasty bread.

Makes 16 slices

1 (8-ounce) package reduced-fat cream cheese

1 cup sugar

3 medium bananas, mashed

1 egg, beaten

2 egg whites

2 cups biscuit baking mix

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat 9x5x3-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray.

2. In mixing bowl, cream together cream cheese and sugar until light. Beat in bananas, egg, and egg whites. Stir in biscuit mix and cinnamon until just blended. Turn into prepared loaf pan.

3. Bake 45 minutes-1 hour, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan 15 minutes.

Nutritional information per serving: Calories 168, Protein (g) 3, Carbohydrate (g) 28, Fat (g) 5, Cal. from Fat (%) 26, Saturated Fat (g) 2, Dietary Fiber (g) 1, Cholesterol (mg) 20, Sodium (mg) 267, Diabetic Exchanges: 0.5 starch, 0.5 fruit, 1 other carbohydrate, 0.5 fat

Terrific Tip: Have over-ripe bananas? Freeze to pull out and make banana bread at any time. Freeze with or without peeling in plastic freezer zip-top bags.

Nutrition Nugget: Bananas are a great source of potassium. They are easily digested by virtually everyone.

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