Penny Brohn UK

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Positive Nutrition as Part of an Integrative Approach to Cancer

Positive Nutrition

Positive Nutrition is an approach to eating which can help us to feel good both physically and emotionally.

At Penny Brohn UK we like to focus on a positive approach to food and nutrition as part of integrative cancer care. However, for many of us health, body issues, busy lives and financial constraints can make finding positivity in what we eat challenging, particularly at a hectic and emotional time like Christmas.

At Christmas, we often find ourself bombarded with guilt-inducing stories of festive calories and weight gain, adding to our stress load and taking away from the joyful and celebratory aspects of food.  Food should be a source of pleasure as well as nutrients…  Here, we share a few ideas to help you find your own version of positive nutrition this Christmas…

Tune out the diet drama

The idea that a few days of indulgence over Christmas can radically change your weight or health isn’t supported by research. Studies suggest we overestimate how much weight we put on over the festive period because we feel guilty, or just bloated and sluggish from a few days’ indulgence. In reality, actual weight gain tends to be small and easily lost once we return to our normal eating pattern. What we do know from research is that long-term, sustainable dietary patterns and lifestyle factors are the more important determinant of health.

Give yourself permission to eat

Focusing on foods we think we should avoid, rather than those we enjoy can drain the joy out of the season, it can also be unbalanced. Cheese for example often gets a bad reputation for its saturated fat content; however, it’s a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals and can provide beneficial bacteria for our gut. Great news for the traditional festive cheese board!

Restricting food can also use a lot of mental energy, as we argue with ourselves in our heads as to whether we should or shouldn’t have that dessert … and when we do, we then spend more mental energy feeling guilty. Studies show that food restriction can increase psychological stress and stress hormones, negatively affecting our body systems, including digestion, immunity, inflammation and hormones.

When you find yourself feeling like you shouldn’t be eating something try asking yourself “what feels good for me right now?” and focus on the positive aspects, including the boost of endorphins we get from enjoying foods we love. Keeping our approach to nutrition flexible and positive is important for our bodies as well as our mind.

Focus on adding not subtracting

Focusing on adding tasty, nutritious foods to our diets over the festive period can be a more positive approach than worrying about avoiding foods that are less beneficial. Yes, the sweet and starchy comfort foods we eat more of at Christmas may affect our health if we eat a lot of them, especially over the long term, but did you know we can offset some of the less beneficial aspects of a high refined carbohydrate meal by adding in more nutritious elements?

For example, an abundance of colourful vegetables add fibre, vitamins and phytonutrients to meals. Herbs such as black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, garlic powder, ginger, oregano, paprika, rosemary and turmeric added to meats and roast potatoes can also help with blood sugar regulation and inflammation. Add some polyphenol rich blueberries to an indulgent desert. Or enjoy that cheeseboard with some wholegrain crackers and fruit to bring balance and a nutritional boost, without detracting from pleasure.

Self-compassion and self-care - more than just nutrition

It can take time to change our mental attitude to food and adopt a more positive, compassionate approach. It may be helpful to think about other strategies that bring their own emotional and physical benefits too.

For example, holidays can be a good time to reset our sleep routine, with more time to enjoy a relaxing bath, an uplifting book or perhaps some gratitude journaling before bedtime. And making space in your day for a refreshing winter walk can help lift your mood and shift that post-meal slump we can all feel.

For some people, daily Loving-Kindness meditations - a practice tied in with self-love, empathy, understanding, and kindness - have been shown in studies to reduce stress and increase self-compassion and social connection. This practice has also been shown to benefit the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, reiterating the importance of emotional wellbeing on our physical health.

By focusing on all the things that give us pleasure this Christmas, we can help take the pressure off what we eat. There are many ways to care for both body and mind this season, whatever sources of peace and joy feel best for you.

You may also like:

Group sessions

Join us on 11 January at 3pm for an introductory session that looks at the evidence for the role of diet and nutrition in cancer and recommendations for eating well with a cancer diagnosis.

Book here

Resources

Eating well during cancer treatment is essential to improve your physical and mental wellbeing. We have created two booklets to help you stay healthy during your cancer treatment and guidance on when eating becomes difficult. The information and guidance has been written by oncology dietitians, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, radiographers and nutritional therapists and reviewed by members of the public.

Eating when eating becomes difficult

Eating well during cancer treatment

Articles

Mindful eating

Cancer: walking for wellbeing

Cancer podcasts guide

References used in this post:

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  • Cena, H. and Calder, P. C., 2020. Defining a Healthy Diet: Evidence for the Role of Contemporary Dietary Patterns in Health and Disease. Nutrients.
  • Hull, H. R., Radley, D., Dinger, M. K., and Fields, D. A., 2006. The effect of the Thanksgiving Holiday on weight gain. Nutrition Journal [online], 5 (1), 29. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-5-29.
  • Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M., and Fredrickson, B. L., 2013. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science [online], 24 (7), 1123–1132. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612470827.
  • Reid, R. and Hackett, A. F., 1999. Changes in nutritional status in adults over Christmas 1998. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics [online], 12 (6), 513–516. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-277x.1999.00205.x.
  • Shahar, B., Szepsenwol, O., Zilcha-Mano, S., Haim, N., Zamir, O., Levi-Yeshuvi, S., and Levit-Binnun, N., 2015. A Wait-List Randomized Controlled Trial of Loving-Kindness Meditation Programme for Self-Criticism. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy [online], 22 (4), 346–356. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.1893.
  • Tonelli, M. E. and Wachholtz, A. B., 2014. Meditation-based treatment yielding immediate relief for meditation-naïve migraineurs. Pain management nursing : official journal of the American Society of Pain Management Nurses [online], 15 (1), 36–40. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24602422.
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