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Take Charge of Your Diet After Cancer

by Linda Goldsmith, MA, RD

Wellness image

Fruits and vegetables provide a rainbow of health benefits. The more colors you eat, the more nutrients you get.

Diet and exercise are an integral part of good health, and emerging research suggests that embracing a healthy lifestyle may reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. When it comes to diet, my two favorite words are “variety” and “moderation.”

Variety is important because an assortment of foods provides an abundance of nutrients. For example, fruits and vegetables come in a rainbow of colors. Red peppers are loaded with vitamins A and C, while green, leafy vegetables are good sources of iron and vitamin K. The more colors you eat, the more nutrients you get. The American Cancer Society recommends at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. A rule of thumb for serving size is one cup of raw veggies or fruit, one-half cup of cooked veggies, or a medium-sized piece of a whole fruit.

It’s also a good idea to consume a variety of healthy fats, such as olive oil, canola oil, and omega-3 fatty acids, while limiting trans fats and saturated fats. Trans fats are found in baked goods and other processed foods. Saturated fats are found primarily in animal products, such as butter and meat. These two fats are clearly identified on food labels. The daily total fat intake for an adult should be between 20 percent and 35 percent of daily calories. Each person has different nutritional needs. A registered dietitian or a website like can help you to assess your individual needs and keep track of your goals.

Author of Article photo

Linda Goldsmith

Protein is another nutrient essential to our well-being. You should try to choose lean protein sources, such as poultry, fish, and low-fat dairy products. Limit red meat (and yes, pork is red meat no matter what their marketing campaign claims) to twice a week, and try to avoid processed meats completely. Processed meats include bacon, breakfast sausage, beef jerky, pepperoni, sandwich meat, ham, and hot dogs. Incorporate plant-based proteins, such as beans, tofu, seeds, and nuts. A handful of nuts is a great snack since nuts are filling and loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber.

Certain fad diets would lead us to believe that carbohydrates are bad and should be strictly limited in our diets. In truth, the problem is not the number of carbohydrates, but the amount of processed and simple carbohydrates we eat. In grains that are “processed” or “refined,” the husk, bran, and germ portions are removed along with 80 percent of the nutrients. When choosing breads, cereals, and pasta, try to find “whole” and “multi” grain products. These products are less processed and tend to have more fiber and other nutrients. Simple carbohydrates that should be limited include sugars, jellies, maple syrup, honey, and molasses.

My other favorite word, moderation, should be practiced with some of the unhealthier foods we encounter every day. Cheesecake, for example, will never make the “Top 10 Healthiest Foods” list. However, if you truly love a food, you should allow yourself to occasionally indulge in a small portion. Moderation needs to be applied to sodium, refined carbohydrates, sugary beverages, high-fat foods, and highly processed foods. Think twice about foods that offer a lot of calories without other nutrients. Cakes, cookies, candy, and fried foods are some examples.

During your cancer treatment, you may have lost or gained weight. Eating a varied diet that emphasizes vegetables and fruits should help you to achieve a healthy weight. Work with your doctor or a registered dietitian to determine an appropriate weight for your body type. If you need to lose weight, do it slowly and set realistic goals. Try to stay active, since exercise also plays a key role in developing and maintaining muscle mass.

If you choose to drink alcohol, moderation should once again be your mantra. While some research supports that alcohol consumption can play a positive role in relation to heart disease, newer evidence shows a link between alcohol consumption and some cancers. The American Cancer Society recommends that you limit yourself to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

So there we have it! Moderation and variety in a diet that emphasizes whole, plant-based foods. Don’t try to overhaul your diet and exercise habits overnight. Make small, realistic changes in order to ease yourself into a healthier and long-lasting lifestyle change.

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Linda Goldsmith is an outpatient oncology dietitian at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, NJ.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2010.