From Meat to Millet: How an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Changed My Life
When you’re diagnosed with a disease like cancer, you quickly become an expert on things you never thought you’d want or need to know, like how many doctor appointments you could cram into one day. You’ll experience a new form of tired you’ve never thought possible; you’ll understand defeat and isolation; and you’ll also develop possibly the strongest connection between you and your body that you will ever have. It’s a connection I never truly made until I was faced with the horrific changes that were unwillingly made to my body while going through chemotherapy in the winter of 2010, at the age of 32, while battling breast cancer.
It was cancer that caused me to change my food lifestyle, but it was how I felt as a result that will keep me on this path for the rest of my (hopefully) long life. I never wanted to be conscious of the foods I put into my body; I wanted to live vicariously through pork. But someone had other plans for my digestive system.
Cancer, chemotherapy and everything after can be construed as a death sentence for your mouth to someone who loves and appreciates food. For many, after the first round of chemotherapy, food just doesn’t taste the same. For some, this is temporary; for others, permanent. Bland takes a new form and spice levels will undergo a drastic recalculation. In addition, there are foods that some simply are told to stay away from during and after treatment.
For me, food and cancer theories and studies are like ears – everyone’s got one, so what’s right? I have no idea, but somewhere along the way, I’ve learned what my body can digest and what it can’t, and now, about a year after my initial diagnosis, my refrigerator’s contents have never looked more inviting.
As I learned on my cancer journey, this disease is all-consuming, a battle that’s fought on all fronts, including the food that you put in your mouth. This is something my traditional doctors never told me, not because they were trying to keep me from being healthy, or keep me dependent on synthetic medicine, but because they just don’t know. Most doctors don’t have any training in nutrition, and I was kind of baffled by this notion. Why wouldn’t doctors want to understand the intricacies of food and its effect on the body?
From the date of my diagnosis until I began chemotherapy, my diet hadn’t really changed that much. It wasn’t until I met my oncology nurse and learned that there was nothing to prevent the side effects of chemo other than more medication that I began to dig around for more information. One of the benefits of being sick in a city like Washington, DC, is that there are a number of alternative facilities BEGGING you to go against the grain. As a result, I found myself at the Center for Integrated Medicine at George Washington University meeting with my new naturopathic physician (ND). My parents, many of my friends and, of course, my oncologist thought I was insane.
I like to compare my first appointment with my ND to going to a new country: You don’t speak the language and you aren’t sure what you’re eating. As I walked into the office, I was intimidated immediately by the floor-to-ceiling pills, herbs and eye droppers of remedies I couldn’t pronounce. You would think, after the barrage of doctors I had already been subjected to, this appointment would be a walk in the park, but it wasn’t. For the first time, I was asked to describe in detail how I was feeling, things I ate, every squeak my body was making, forcing me for the first time to really take a minute to listen to what my body was telling me. Only through that could I help myself heal.
I’ve spent two hours waiting for a doctor before, but had never spent two hours talking to one, and that’s exactly what happened. The ND asked me to start from the beginning, from my diagnosis to the present, and I walked out of my new naturopath’s office with a bag of goodies and a brand-new set of dietary guidelines that she guaranteed would alleviate some of the side effects of the chemotherapy, which included digestive issues. Mushrooms to keep my white blood cell count up, probiotics for digestion and an anti-inflammatory diet that changed almost every aspect of how I eat.
The basis of an anti-inflammatory diet is pretty simple. No gluten, very little meat (and if you’re going to eat meat, it has to be grass-fed, antibiotic-free) and no dairy or refined sugar. Gone were the whole grains I thought were helping, as well as nightshade fruits and vegetables. I had already made the switch to all organics, which meant a lot more trips to Whole Foods and farmers markets around the city and, sadly, more money flying out of my wallet.
In addition to the guidelines from the anti-inflammatory diet, it was suggested that during chemotherapy I remove from my everyday consumption shellfish, corn, caffeine, soy, peanuts, alcohol and almost all liquids other than water and green tea. If you’re keeping tabs, while most things on the shelves contain gluten, even more things contain corn, so there I was standing in Whole Foods, exhausted from chemo and exasperated as I read label after label searching for something to eat. This was bleak and I was sad. Not even sad – devastated. What did this mean for all the yummy dinners I wanted to try? What did this mean for my half-price bottle wine nights at my favorite local wine bar with locally-cured meats and cheeses?
The good and bad news was, I was so tired, even if I wanted to go out for a plate of meat and cheese, I wouldn’t have stayed awake long enough to enjoy it. So I took joy in smaller victories, like successfully cooking my first cup of millet, a gluten-free grain that can accompany any vegetable. Armed with my list of foods and my tote bag, I scoured the famers markets in DC to find veggies and fruits that would keep my mouth happy even when everything tasted bland and metallic, rather than sucking down Jell-O like the instructions I had gotten from my oncologist. I learned to eat with the DC seasons (apples, pears and squashes in the fall and winter; asparagus in the spring; berries and zucchini all summer) and incorporating different types of beans into meals for added protein, resulting in an ongoing love affair with the chickpea.
I kept this regimen consistent through my chemotherapy and then continued with it through six weeks of radiation. After almost eight months of dramatically feeling (and looking) better, I decided, why stop now?
Which brings us to today. I don’t even remember what I used to keep in my refrigerator before making the move to an anti-inflammatory diet. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll never say no to a dozen oysters or a night out with a few dirty martinis, but when it comes to feeling better, I’ve now learned to listen to what my body is telling me, whether it’s saying that it’s had too much or not enough of something. As a result, we’ve never been closer.
Meredith Goldberg is based in Washington, DC where she works as a public relations and marketing manager in the hospitality industry. When she isn’t working, she spends her time working on her first book about navigating and surviving breast cancer in her early 30’s, and finding the balance between a cancer fighting diet and loving all things pork.
Photo credit: Prasan