One of the most common questions we are asked as Nutritional Therapists at Penny Brohn is ‘I have cancer, what should I eat?’ It’s a big question and not as easy to answer as you may think. We are all different and, when it comes to food and nutrition, we are each unique, with a unique set of needs. As such, foods that suit one person may not necessarily suit another. So when experimenting with new ways of eating, one of the most important things you can do is listen to your body. If it doesn’t feel right for you, don’t do it. Although we don’t subscribe to a ‘one-size-fits-all-cancer-diet’ here at Penny Brohn, we have developed our own healthy eating guidelines which we believe support people dealing with the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual impact of cancer. You can buy these in the Penny Brohn UK shop.
The first of these principles is to eat a wide range of natural whole foods. Here, we’re talking about foods in their natural state, foods that have not been altered. For example, we encourage you to eat wholegrain brown rice instead of refined white rice. Why? Because the outer husk of the grain is so nutritious! Wholegrain is a better source of fibre, as well as important minerals such as selenium, potassium and magnesium. They also take longer to digest than refined grains so they keep us fuller for longer, helping to balance energy levels throughout the day.
Another less obvious example is citrus fruits. Most of us discard the peel and pith of an orange or lemon, using only the flesh or juice. But did you know the peel and pith is packed with beneficial flavonoids which have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects? Next time you’re eating an orange, try saving the skin (preferably organic) and using it in another meal. And it doesn’t have to be a cake! It can be grated and added to salads, smoothies, gravies and curries.
You will also hear us talk about variety and colour. It’s so easy to stick with the same foods week in, week out, but different foods contain different nutrients and we believe that to obtain the full range of nutrients, variety is key. Many of us regularly eat bread, pasta, oats and rice. But how many of us eat quinoa, millet, amaranth and buckwheat? These grains and grasses are packed with health promoting nutrients, are high in protein and make amazing bases for salads (e.g. as an alternative to rice or couscous). At breakfast, the flakes can be used in porridge and muesli. Why not commit to trying one new grain this month?
When we talk about colour, we are mainly referring to vegetables and fruit, herbs & spices. We recommend you eat as many different colour vegetables and fruit as possible and try to include a rainbow of colours each day. Why? Because different colours contain different phytonutrients – plant nutrients – which have known health benefits and may be specifically helpful in cancer. So, when you think about eating, think COLOUR!
Examples of phytonutrients which may be helpful in cancer
Anthocyanins – found in the dark red pigment of beetroot, berries and aubergines.
Carotenoids – found in ‘greens’, carrots, red & yellow peppers, oranges & tomatoes
Indoles – found in broccoli, kale and cabbage
Piperine – found in black pepper
Polyphenols – found in turmeric and pomegranate
Catechins – found in green tea
Our bodies naturally need a good balance of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Let’s start with fats. After years of bad press, fats are finally making a come-back! Recognised as being essential to our survival, fats are required for immune health, brain function, hormone production and energy.
We encourage you to include a range of fats in your diet – saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Saturated fats are found in butter, coconut oil, ghee and goose fat. They are useful for cooking because they are less likely to become damaged when exposed to heat. The health promoting monounsaturated fats are found in avocado, olive oil and nuts including hazelnuts, pecans and almonds. Two essential polyunsaturated fats are the omega 3 and omega 6 fats. We recommend including both in your diet, with a special focus on omega 3 fats as these are used to produce beneficial anti-inflammatory compounds.
Examples of omega 3 & 6 rich foods
Omega 3: oily fish – salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring & trout) and to a lesser extent, ground flax, chia and hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.
Omega 6: raw seeds, especially sunflower, pumpkin chia, sesame and hemp.
As for protein, we recommend you eat lean protein with every meal and snack. Protein has many vital roles in the body and may be needed in larger quantities during periods of healing, repair and when recovering from illness. Animal produce is our richest source of protein and includes meat, fish, game, poultry, eggs and dairy. A diet free from all animal produce can provide adequate protein if it includes a variety of plant foods – beans, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds, along with some wholegrains.
Carbohydrate rich foods provide our body with glucose, its main energy source. They can be found in grains, vegetables, fruit and sugar. Wholegrains, vegetables and fruit are an important source of fibre which is essential for hormone balance, healthy digestion and healthy blood sugar levels.
Our healthy eating plate shows the type and proportion of foods to include at each meal. Aim for at least half of your plate to be filled with vegetables & fruit, with the remainder being split between protein, fats and starches (grains/potatoes). Don’t forget to include herbs and spices, which are central to our plate because they are a rich source of anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and give flavour and interest to our meals.
And last but by no means least, is our mindful eating principle. We believe that how you eat is as important as what you eat. Mindful eating helps us to digest and absorb what we eat and makes eating more enjoyable. So, next time you eat, try making your dining area a pleasurable place to be and take time to sit, eat, chew and savour your meal!
Changing your eating habits can be challenging, so to help get you started, we want to share with you, a recipe from our cookbook, Nourish. We have incorporated our healthy eating guidelines into an easy to make, nutrient packed, energy dense smoothie! Full of colour, healthy fats, wholefoods and protein, this smoothie is a complete meal. Why not give it a whirl!