Living an Anti-Cancer Lifestyle: Ten Steps to Good Nutrition While Fighting Cancer

Erika Jenschke, RD Oncology Dietitian  Memorial Hermann Cancer Center at the Texas Medical Center

Erika Jenschke, RD
Oncology Dietitian
Memorial Hermann Cancer Center at the Texas Medical Center

After a diagnosis of cancer, many patients shift their focus to making changes within their diet – and rightfully so. Good nutrition is an essential part of cancer prevention and treatment. “Both cancer itself and the treatment you undergo can affect your appetite and your ability to tolerate certain foods,” said Erika Jenschke, RD, an oncology dietitian at the Memorial Hermann Cancer Center at the Texas Medical Center.

In addition to helping during treatment, changes to diet are increasingly connected to preventing cancer in the first place. According to data from the American Institute for Cancer Research, a third of the most common cancers in the United States may be prevented through diet. The Memorial Hermann Cancer Centers have partnered with dietitians like Jenschke all across the system. They offer cancer patients and others seeking to improve their health 10 easy steps to an anti-cancer diet, along with perks and recipes.

1. Pump up your volume of vegetables and fruit. “The phytochemicals that give plant foods their flavor, color, fiber and texture can help prevent damage to DNA, which may lead to cancer,” Jenschke said. “They also block carcinogens and curb the inflammation that fuels cancer cell growth.” She suggests eating five servings daily of non-starchy vegetables and fruits in a “rainbow of reds, oranges, yellows, light and dark greens, blues, purples and even whites and browns.”

2. Bulk up on fiber. Fiber fights heart disease, diabetes and constipation. It also fills you up. Jenschke advises women to consume about 25 grams of fiber daily and men to eat about 35 grams. “Substitute high-fiber foods such as peas, lentils, black beans, artichokes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, raspberries, blackberries, bran flakes, whole wheat pasta, barley and oatmeal for white pasta, rice, potatoes, sweetened cereals and high-sugar foods.”

3. Switch to healthy fats. High-fat diets raise the risk of breast, prostate, colon and other cancers. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats slow cancer growth. “Ditch high-fat whipping cream and whole milk for one percent milk and reduced-fat almond, soy and coconut milk,” Jenschke said. “Nix coconut, palm and palm kernel oils, which are rich in saturated fats, and use healthy oils such as olive, avocado, almond, walnut and flaxseed. Eat red salmon and white tuna packed in water at least twice a week.”

4. Spice it up. Many herbs and spices are rich in cancer-thwarting phytochemicals. Add cinnamon, lemons, cumin, turmeric, limes, cilantro, onions and garlic as you prepare your meals.

5. Give up cured, smoked, salted and preserved meats. Salami, bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs and bologna are high in the carcinogen nitrite. Jenschke suggests avoiding them altogether.

6. Limit red meat. Beef, pork and lamb contain heme iron, which can harm the colon’s lining. In addition, the high temperatures used to grill meat unlock cancer-causing chemicals. Limit red meat to 18 ounces per week, substituting wild-caught fish and free-range chicken.

7. Prepare food differently. Breading foods with flour and cooking them at high temperatures can change their chemistry, harming your cells’ DNA. Bake, broil or poach poultry, fish and meat instead of frying or charbroiling. Read food labels and weed out hydrogenated fats, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup.

8. Limit alcohol. The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast and colorectal cancers. Suggested amounts are one drink a day for women and two daily for men, either 8 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. Women at high risk of breast cancer may want to consider avoiding alcohol altogether.

9. Get physical. Be active most days of the week, with more than 30 minutes of a sustained elevated heartbeat. Getting your blood pumping helps maintain muscle mass and strength, stamina and bone strength. Exercise can help reduce depression and stress.

10. Start now. Keep a diary of foods and feelings as you progress through your treatment. Seeing it on paper can lead to improvement day to day. “Beginning healthy habits early makes it easier to comply later in life,” Jenschke said. “But it’s never too late. Instead of regretting the past, think of your healthy future.”