Nothing makes you think twice about what goes on your plate quite like a serious diagnosis. All of a sudden, food takes on a whole new meaning. It can feel like every single bite has the power to help heal or further harm you. You might even start to blame yourself and wonder if your pre-diagnosis diet is what got you here.
I’ve been there and I want you to know that you’re not alone.
My cancer diagnosis motivated me to renovate my own diet. It was the wakeup call I needed to lay off the processed foods and transition to a plant-based diet. I’m so glad I did because now I’m happier and healthier than ever, but it was a challenge to make that shift at first.
That time of my life was a whirlwind of doctors appointments, labs, research and reading, and doing my best not to panic at every turn. My mission was to save my life… I didn’t have the time, energy or knowledge to experiment in the kitchen or come up with tasty recipes to make my new diet work.
And here’s the thing—I didn’t have treatment options (my disease is incurable). At the time I wanted nothing more than to zap those cancer cells into oblivion, but I know now that it would have added a whole extra layer of complication to my healing journey.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed or are in treatment for cancer, I know everything might feel out of control right now. I won’t sugarcoat it—a lot of stuff IS out of your control. But today I want to focus on what you CAN do, not what you can’t. And it all starts with what you eat.
The Cancer Kitchen Recipe Pack
Food is powerful medicine—it heals, comforts, uplifts, energizes and so much more. You deserve to enjoy it. That’s why I created the Cancer Kitchen Recipe Pack.
I worked with my incredible team of dietitians to carefully select 12 nutritious recipes that will support your body and help you stay well during treatment. They’re all easy to digest and deliver tons of nutrition in every bite. Whether you’re in treatment, a caregiver or just interested in prevention, I hope you’ll grab a copy of this free resource today.
I think you’re gonna love the recipes in the Cancer Kitchen Recipe Pack—two of my favorites are the Carrot Ginger Soup and Pesto Pea Pasta. But before we get cooking, I want to talk about another important aspect of diet for cancer patients. You might’ve heard about certain foods and their relationship to cancer—specifically soy, sugar and other inflammatory foods.
There’s a lot of mixed information out there about whether or not these foods increase cancer risk, make existing cancers worse and even negatively interact with cancer treatments. I know these questions might be weighing on you, so let’s unpack them together.
First up, let me say that I eat soy multiple times a week in the form of organic, non-GMO edamame, tempeh, miso and tofu. Soy is a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids your body needs. It’s also readily available in most grocery stores and is plant-based (no cruel/inflammatory animal products, thank ya very much!).
Soy and breast cancer
I’m sure you’ve heard some of the controversy surrounding soy, especially if breast cancer is on your radar. Soy contains isoflavones, a compound that’s structurally similar to estrogen (source). High estrogen levels have been linked with increased breast cancer risk, which is one of the reasons people have gotten the idea that eating soy could be bad for your health.
Some of the soy confusion stems from a few old studies that suggested a link between breast cancer and very high consumption of soy protein isolates—a type of highly processed soy that can be found in snack foods and some faux meats. But nowadays we understand that consumption of ultra-processed foods of all kinds may increase cancer risk (source)—highly processed soy included.
So the fuel for the soy/cancer connection was more about processed soy than it was about soy itself. In fact, research has shown that eating moderate amounts organic, non-GMO, whole soy foods could actually help protect us from breast cancer. One study of approximately 10,000 breast cancer survivors found that moderate soy intake was associated with a 25 percent reduction in recurrence (source). Researchers have also learned that among Asian populations, soy consumption cuts breast cancer risk by 41 percent (source).
You may also be concerned about soy if you currently have breast cancer. And if you feel safer avoiding it, that’s completely up to you—you’re the head honcho of Your Health Inc., after all! But I do want to reassure you that only highly processed soy (when soy isoflavones are isolated from the soybean) has a negative effect on estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. We should all stay away from processed soy, but cancer patients should be especially careful. Organic, non-GMO whole soy foods, on the other hand, may actually have an anti-cancer effect (source). This just goes to show the striking difference between eating foods in their original, whole vs. processed forms.
I explored the soy/breast cancer topic in detail in this blog post, so I encourage you to check it out if you want to learn more about the potential benefits of including it in your diet.
Soy and prostate cancer
Prostate cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in men worldwide. Studies have shown that soy may have a hand in preventing prostate cancer and even improving survival rates for patients.
Studies of Asian populations with soy-rich diets indicate that they may have as much as a 50 percent reduced rate of prostate cancer (study). Plus, the isoflavones in soy and the soy protein genistein may promote cancer cell apoptosis (cell death) and inhibit cancer cell growth in men with prostate cancer (study).
The last word on organic soy: Yay or nay?
Organic, non-GMO soy is potently anti-inflammatory, rich in heart-healthy protein and calcium and full of phytonutrients. And because the idea that organic soy increases risk of cancer isn’t well-supported, I believe it has a place in a healthy diet for cancer patients (yay!). That’s why I included a yummy organic, non-GMO tofu scramble and salad with edamame in your Cancer Kitchen Recipe Pack (there are also easy substitutions to make it soy-free!).
But your diet should be uniquely designed for you, especially if you’re in treatment and need to take extra special care of yourself. You may be dealing with an allergy or intolerance, or just feel safer omitting all soy. That’s ok—only you and your team of healthcare professionals can decide what’s best for you, dear one!
Sugar is in everything in our food supply, from soups and cereals to frozen dinners and premade sauces. Over the course of the last three decades, our national consumption of added sugars has increased more than 30 percent (source).
When referring to sugars, the term “added” (also “refined”) refers to the kind that’s highly processed and/or doesn’t occur naturally in our food (for example, the naturally occurring sugars in fruit or root vegetables). I’m talkin’ about the syrups and sugars added to candy, soft drinks, pasta sauces, ketchups, salad dressings, snack foods and so on. These sugars serve no nutritional purpose, promote inflammation and wreak havoc on our health.
And remember, you’re in charge of what goes in that precious bod of yours. My opinion? You deserve nothing less than the absolute best.
Does sugar feed cancer?
All cells “feed” on sugar (aka glucose) as their primary fuel source. But cancer cells are greedy and can gobble up glucose much faster than non-cancerous cells. That’s why you have to drink a delightful concoction of radioactive glucose before getting a PET scan (though some people get it as an injection instead). Cancer cells go to town on the stuff and light up the screen during your scan.
Understanding blood sugar and the glycemic index
To explore the relationship between sugar and cancer, first we have to understand the basics of the glycemic index (GI). Simply put, the GI tells you how fast a particular food will raise your blood sugar level. The higher a food’s GI, the faster it raises your blood sugar. So for example, processed white bread and desserts made with white sugar have a higher GI than fruit that contains naturally occurring sugar.
Your body produces insulin to help regulate your blood sugar. And along with it comes insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). So the more sugar you eat—especially the refined, high-GI variety that’s most likely to cause your blood sugar level to spike—the more insulin and IGF-1 your body produces.
IGF-1 and cancer
Here’s where the sugar/cancer connection comes in: IGF-1 is a growth hormone, which means it encourages cell growth… cancer cells included. Studies have shown that when IGF-1 levels are too high, it promotes breast, lung, prostate and other types of solid tumor growth (source).
IGF-1 can block the effectiveness of chemotherapy by making cancer cells less responsive to the treatments. Plus, IGF-1 can be a problem for people with hormonal cancers (such as breast, endometrial or uterine cancer) because it stimulates the cancer cells’ estrogen receptors. IGF-1 has even been found to interfere with the effectiveness of the drug trastuzumab. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, check out this helpful article from my blog archives!
While we’re on the topic of IGF-1, I want to share some important info about animal products too. Our bodies naturally produce this growth hormone. We also get it from our mother’s milk when we’re babies. You know who else drinks their mothers’ milk as babies? Other mammals like cows and goats, whose milk contains IGF-1 identical to our own. That means the more dairy and meat we consume, the more we consume IGF-1 (source).
Whew! Let’s recap this sciency stuff just so we’re all clear: Refined, processed carbs like white sugar and white rice are more likely to spike your blood sugar because they don’t contain fiber to slow down the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream. When your blood sugar spikes, your body produces insulin and IGF-1. Animals produce IGF-1 just like humans do, so animal products also contain it. Because IGF-1 is a growth hormone, it can help cancer cells grow. Cancer patients, survivors, thrivers and those interested in prevention should all try to reduce their levels of IGF-1. A great way to do that is with a whole foods, plant-based diet rich in fiber. Exercise helps, too (source)!
The bottom line on sugar
Your cells need fuel, so your body will make the glucose it needs from protein and fat whether or not you eat it. Some folks avoid as much sugar as possible—even the unrefined, low-GI variety found in fruits and veggies (this is popular with keto and paleo diets). But complex carbohydrates have so much nutritional value to offer (fiber, micronutrients, phytochemicals and antioxidants) and come with plenty of fiber to slow the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream.
Just like we discussed for soy, how much and what kind of sugar you consume is ultimately up to you and your doctor. But my advice is to do whatever you can to keep your blood sugar levels stable. Complex carbohydrates aren’t bad for you in the same way simple sugars are, but that doesn’t mean you should load up on them either… especially if you currently have cancer. Stick with moderate amounts of healthy whole grains, low-GI fruits and maybe the occasional treat like a couple squares of dark chocolate (if your doctor OKs it!). Limit or avoid refined, processed sugars as much as possible.
I covered all the sticky sweet deets on sugar in this article, so I hope you’ll check it out. I included my favorite natural alternatives, as well as tips for managing sugar cravings!
Inflammatory vs. anti-inflammatory foods
Sugar and soy aren’t the only foods linked to cancer. In fact, many foods that are staples in the standard American diet are problematic for one big, bad reason: Inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is your body’s confused and damaging immune response to a barrage of environmental, physical and mental invaders. And one of the most common yet underestimated invaders is a diet filled with red and processed meat, fried and fake foods, dairy, etc.
Here’s the thing: That stuff may taste good going in, but your body doesn’t recognize it as fuel. Instead, it interprets it as an attack on your system. Constantly trying to fend off those attacks causes chronic inflammation, which in time wears out your immune system and can lead to serious health issues… including cancer.
But just as diet can increase cancer incidence and progression, it can also play a major role in fighting it. Embrace gorgeous greens, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, sea veggies, fruits and vegetables galore. These foods flood your cells with incredible nutrients it needs, especially when you’re facing a health challenge. Filling your plate with plant-strong, whole foods sends cancer a clear message: Get lost.
As you start to notice the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet, you’ll lose your taste for the other crap. Because nothing is quite as sweet as it feels to love, protect and respect your body unconditionally, cancer or not.
So, what’s the best diet for cancer patients?
There’s no one answer to that question, but I can tell you it’s definitely anti-inflammatory and loaded with plants! Doing what you can to reduce inflammation is one of the absolute best things you can do for your health and longevity. For me and my most trusted doctors, researchers and advisors, that’s a plant-based diet packed with delicious whole foods and my secret ingredient: compassion (for myself, the planet and all other living beings).
Your diet might look a bit different, so trust yourself, talk to a highly trained and informed integrative doctor (my top recommendation is Keith Block, MD) and listen to the feedback your wise body gives you… When you tune in, you’ll probably find it has a lot to say.
Don’t forget your Cancer Kitchen Recipe Pack!
Whether you’re a cancer patient, thriver or survivor, these recipes are for you. Even caregivers and family members interested in prevention will benefit from these recipes and the healing meals you share together. I hope this gift makes mealtime a little easier and brings you some comfort. I love you!
Like we discussed earlier, you can’t control everything—especially when you’re navigating a cancer diagnosis or treatment. But you sure as heck can control your diet. Give yourself permission to step up and take the reigns. Embrace food for the potent healing medicine it truly is. You’ve got this. And I’ll be right here, cheering you on.
Your turn: What are your go-to cancer-fighting recipes? Or, which recipe from the Cancer Kitchen Recipe Pack are you most excited to make? Let me know in the comments below!
Peace & cooking,
Spiritual self-care practices like meditation go hand in hand with nourishing your body when it comes to healing and staying well during treatment. My Self-Care for Busy People meditation album was designed to help you access inner peace whenever you need it most. Get your copy here!