Healthy eating for cancer survivors


So you’ve finished your cancer treatment plan. It’s been a gruelling time but now life can start to get back to normal and you want to really enjoy it whilst at the same time taking care of your health. Good nutrition is important so read on to find out about healthy eating for cancer survivors.

Enjoy food

Preparing food for and eating with others is a way of sharing feelings that are hard to put into words, standing with people who are going through a hard time and celebrating with people who have achieved important milestones. So this is a great time to share food with others. Try sharing healthy recipes with friends. Maybe have a cook and share event with other cancer survivors and their families to celebrate this new phase of your life.

Aim to achieve and maintain a healthy weight

If you lost a lot of weight during your treatment then you will need slightly different advice. My main focus here is people who are overweight because being overweight increases our risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes and puts unwanted pressure on our joints. There is lots of advice elsewhere on my blog about weight loss so do take a look at the articles at the link below. You need to get well-informed, become more aware of your motivations, hunger and eating triggers, get yourself organised and get supported.


Have a more “plant-based” diet

This will lower your risk of cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure. It will also help ensure that you have strong bones. Aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day and push up to 8/day if you can. Have a wide variety and include all the colours of the rainbow.  If you have had breast cancer be sure to include some brassicas (cabbage broccoli, brussels, cauliflower, swedes, turnip, collards and kale) as this will help reduce the risk of recurrence. When you plate up your meals think of the plants as the focus and the meat/fish as the side dish.

Hold back on meat

Consumption of red meat and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer. Stick to less than 500 grams (cooked weight) of red meat per week and very little if any processed meat (i.e. meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting or addition of chemical preservatives).

Think carefully about fats

Omega 3 fats help reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. Include 1-2 portions of oily fish each week eg salmon, fresh tuna, mackerel, sardines and pilchards. If you don’t like fish include more nuts and seeds like walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds. We all need some fat but too much is not helpful because it’s packed with calories. Measure fat and oil when cooking and use oils with a good amount of omega 3 fat such as rapeseed oil. Choose lean cuts of meat and check labels. Choose low fat dairy products. The jury is still out on saturated fats so until all the evidence has been evaluated the advice is to keep saturated fats to a minimum, so check labels and look for products low in saturated fats.

Boost your fibre intake

This will reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer plus it’s good for bowel health and helping you feel fuller for longer. Make sure you have fibre from a variety of different sources so you get soluble and insoluble fibre. Good sources of soluble fibre include fruits and vegetables and oats. Insoluble fibre helps reduce your risk of cancer and helps keep your bowels regular. Good sources include wholegrain foods like wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholegrain unsweetened breakfast cereal and wholemeal pasta.

You don’t need to cut out dairy

There are a lot of scare stories in the press and on the internet about dairy foods, hormones and antibiotics. Hormones are used in some countries to stimulate higher milk yields, but this is not allowed in the EU. Hormones may be prescribed for individual cows for reproductive issues or antibiotics for disease but use of veterinary medicines is very carefully controlled by law and when they are used the cow’s milk is not allowed to enter the food chain for a stipulated period, known as the withdrawal period. Dairy products are an important source of calcium, key for strong bones. The best way to make sure you are getting enough is to have 3 portions of dairy foods/day eg milk with cereal, a glass of milk to drink, a matchbox sized piece of cheese or a yogurt. Remember that low fat dairy products contain just as much calcium as full fat. If you don’t eat dairy for example if you are vegan or if you cannot tolerate it make sure that the substitutes you use have calcium added.

Vitamin supplements can be risky

You should be able to get all the vitamins you need from your diet. The exception is vitamin D where it is recommended that we all consider taking a 10 microgram supplement each day. Taking antioxidant tablets can actually increase your risk of cancer although antioxidants in food are good for your health. Just make sure your have 5-8 portions of a variety of fruits and vegetables each day.

Alcohol – stay as dry as you can

Too much alcohol increases your risk of cancer and adds a lot of calories. It’s also bad for your bones. You probably didn’t feel much like drinking during your treatment so now could be a good time to stop altogether. Don’t start drinking because you think it might help reduce your risk of heart disease. There are plenty of better ways to do this. If you do drink have as little as possible and certainly no more than 14 units/week. Remember a unit is a small glass of wine, a single measure of spirits or 350ml beer or lager.

Keep your salt intake down

Too much salt increases your risk of high blood pressure and hence heart attack and stroke. It also weakens bones. Don’t add salt at the table and use herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavour to food when cooking. Cut back on processed foods and check labels to make sure any processed foods you do have are low in salt.

So there are some things to have more of and some to eat less of but plenty of variety to ensure that you can enjoy food and enjoy life.

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