A healthier diet for cancer survivors

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By Matthew Ballo, M.D.

Most cancer patients are elated to complete their treatment and ready to get back to their normal routines. But along with the excitement, there is often some fear and apprehension about the future.

The fact is, completing cancer treatment doesn't necessarily mean a patient is "done." Going forward, it's imperative that patients adapt to a new normal and commit to a healthier lifestyle to build strength and energy, and to reduce their risk of recurrence. In our Road to Wellness program, which is designed to support patients as they transition from cancer treatment to cancer survivorship, we put a heavy emphasis on the importance of proper nutrition.

Emerging evidence shows that avoiding weight gain after a cancer diagnosis can reduce the risk of recurrence, as well as prevent a number of other chronic diseases. Your goal should be to achieve and/or maintain a Body Mass Index (BMI) of between 19 and 25. With moderate exercise and a healthy diet, that's not difficult for most people to achieve.  It's a commitment cancer survivors need to make in the best interest of their long-term health.

Healthy diet guidelines for cancer survivors
Follow these guidelines to ensure you're eating the best diet for a cancer survivor.

Fill up on fruits and vegetables. Consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily to get the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients your body needs to fight off inflammation and diseases, including cancer. Studies suggest that people who eat more vegetables and fruits may have a lower risk for some types of cancer.

Limit red meat. Limit red meat to three or fewer servings per week. Opt for lean meats, like chicken, turkey and fish instead. And, be sure to avoid charred meat and processed meat. Many studies have linked red meat to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. 

Opt for unsaturated fats. Replace saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats. Cook in olive oil and snack on avocados and nuts. Keep in mind that unsaturated fats can be high in calories, so limit your daily total fat intake to less than 30 percent of your total energy intake. 

Soy. Consume naturally occurring soy products such as tofu or soy flour as part of a balanced diet low in saturated fats and high in fruits and vegetables. However, limit yourself to one serving of soy per day.

Limit alcohol. Limit alcohol intake to less than one serving per day or none at all. Increasingly, studies are linking many types of cancer to too much alcohol consumption.

Meet with a dietitian after cancer treatment
I recommend that my patients, after completing their cancer treatment and transitioning to survivorship, take time to meet with a dietician and map put a meal plan that's best for them. If you're a patient here at MD Anderson, ask your doctor or nurse to refer you to one of our nutritionists for a consultation.

The road to wellness is truly a journey that includes many other lifestyle changes aimed at preventing recurrence. But by starting with changing how you look at food and deciding to make better choices, you'll likely find it easier to make other healthy changes.

Matthew Ballo, M.D., is professor of Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson in the Bay Area

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