Maybe your breast cancer IS your fault anyway, simply because you couldn’t avoid all those alcoholic bevvies and fatty, sugary, floury, fried, processed, battered, crunchy and heavily salted foods you love.
Steering clear of foods you love can be pure, unadulterated torture.
Most people willingly participate in this type of torture to:
- lose weight
- feel better in their clothes (read: want to lose weight)
- eat healthier (often a weight loss goal in disguise)
- exercise their black and white (often misguided) view of foods that are/aren’t healthy
This makes perfect sense (yet doesn’t mean it works) if you subscribe to the dieting dogma we’ve been force-fed for. ever.
But ever since you were handed that breast cancer diagnosis, avoiding foods you love has taken on a new level of urgency; as in evacuation-plan-for-a-level-5-hurricane sort of urgency.
The urgency settles in because you’re convinced that eating the foods you love versus a more balanced diet will no doubt encourage your cancer to grow rapidly and wildly out of control.
And it will all be your fault.
Maybe your breast cancer IS your fault, simply because you couldn’t avoid all those alcoholic bevvies and fatty, sugary, floury, fried, processed, battered, crunchy and heavily salted foods you love.
So the obvious solution is to completely cut out all alcoholic bevvies and fatty, sugary, floury, fried, processed, battered, crunchy and heavily salted foods.
Then everything will be just fine.
Oh my goodness, if only taming the breast cancer beast were that straightforward.
The Way Food Works on Breast Cancer
The good breast cancer news is that the foods we choose can have a positive impact on recurrence risk, which is why I’m an advocate for upleveling your diet as part of your treatment plan – (here’s more info on using nutrition to prepare for treatment.)
But here’s the thing.
No one food in particular improves your breast cancer survival rate or reduces recurrence risk.
Nope, it’s your overall pattern of eating.
What’s a “pattern of eating”?
I’m so glad you asked.
Meal Patterns Explained
Just like any other profession, we dietitians have our own industry lingo. Dietary pattern, meal pattern or eating pattern all mean the same thing.
“Formal” Nutrition Science Definition:
The term ‘meal patterns’ is an overarching construct that is often used to describe individuals’ eating patterns at the level of a ‘meal’, such as a main meal (for example, breakfast, lunch or dinner) or a smaller-sized meal (for example, supper or snack). (1)
Cathy’s “Informal”, Please-Explain-What-the-Hell-That-Means Definition:
A meal pattern is a unique-to-you roadmap showing the variety, balance, quality and nutrients in your “usual” diet. It’s a FOOD COLLAGE of how you typically eat, rather than a single-food snapshot of how you occasionally eat.
For example, if you eat home-cooked meals most often, 7-9 servings of fruit and vegetables each day and avoid alcohol except on rare occasions, your FOOD COLLAGE closely resembles the recommendations for a diet that may reduce risk of recurrence. (2)
If, on the other hand, you’re a restaurant frequent-flyer who rejects fruits and veggies like they’re poison and prides yourself on your well-stocked (and sampled) wine cellar, your FOOD COLLAGE veers dramatically off course from cancer-protective recommendations.
But here’s the rub.
You can follow either one of those eating patterns and still have unpredictable breast cancer outcomes, as in, the one you think wouldn’t be diagnosed with a recurrence just might, and vice versa.
Lack of guarantees on outcomes aside, I remain a staunch advocate for a cancer-protective dietary pattern. Research continues to grow in support of its benefit, and the current data that we DO have is extremely encouraging. (3)
Even beyond that, healthier eating patterns after a diagnosis help decrease the risk for diabetes, heart disease and other medical conditions that all breast cancer survivors want to avoid!
Back to the Food Avoidance Tactic
Since I’ve surely convinced you by now that your PATTERN of eating is most important in reducing recurrence risk, you may next like to know what foods you should eliminate from that pattern in order to keep it bullet-proof.
Well, hold onto your steak knives because before we get there, I’d like to introduce a new concept to you.
What would you say if I suggested that ALL foods are actually neutral in terms of quality and benefit, and by deliberately avoiding certain foods you could suffer severe mental anguish? Don’t buy it?
Me neither – sometimes. Let me explain.
It’s Okay to Be Flexible with Food
Any food, regardless of what it is, will give you some combination of calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
Take hard candy for example. Is it a food? Yes. (4)
Does it have vitamins and minerals? No. Does it have fat and protein? No. Is it loaded with quality nutrition? Absolutely not.
But it does have calories and carbohydrates, and if you were stranded on Gilligan’s Island with nothing to eat but an endless supply of Jolly Ranchers, you’d survive.
Even though you may suffer vitamin/mineral deficiencies as you await rescue, those calories and carbs would fuel your brain and body to keep you alive – albeit without your normal energy level.
And those deficiencies? They could be resolved.
So in that example, is the candy “quality” fuel? Damn straight, it is!
But in your real, not-on-an-island, post-breast-cancer-diagnosis life, the quality of that candy becomes non-negotiable; it’s simply not a high quality food to include in your breast cancer diet.
Or is it?
The Danger of Creating Food Scarcity
Even though hard candy isn’t a quality nutrition food, for hard candy lovers it most definitely offers other benefits; like the pure joy of eating it.
If you adore hard candy, banishing it from your life and labeling it something you can NEVER eat creates an enormous void in your life. Guilt, shame and feeling “bad” should you slip and accidentally-in-a-moment-of-weakness actually eat the candy will stalk you and gladly fill that void.
And that, my friends, is what holds the potential to ignite the mental anguish I spoke of earlier.
Giving Yourself Grace
Crafting a rigid world of food scarcity in an effort to control your breast cancer is the polar opposite of making a deliberate, conscious decision to keep less nutritious foods in your diet, while limiting them to an occasional appearance in your FOOD COLLAGE.
If you struggle beneath the weight of strict food rules that you refuse to bend or break, regardless of the situation, we need to work on your concept of food neutrality (email me immediately, please!).
On the other hand, you’re doing just fine if you:
- choose high quality foods most often out of a strong appreciation for and genuine enjoyment of those foods, rather than because you’re bowing to inflexible food rules
- incorporate breast cancer nutrition recommendations without slamming the door on all the foods you truly love
- enjoy “less healthy” foods on occasion without sentencing yourself to doing food penance
A “Foods to Avoid” List
As a thank you for reading this far, I want to leave you with an actual list of foods, beverages and ingredients to consider avoiding, because breast cancer nutrition research suggests they take up residence on the “eat occasionally” list. (6)
- Added sugar
- Animal fats
- Hydrogenated oils
- Soy isolate “meat alternatives”
- Refined grains
- Fried foods
If you want to further explore these foods and their impact on breast cancer recurrence risk, click here and download my program, “Breast Cancer Nutrition 101: Beyond Turmeric & Green Tea” for additional education and guidance on foods to eat and foods to avoid.
In summary, keep the following in mind:
- We know that junky foods high in sugar, fat and artificial ingredients aren’t the best choices, but they didn’t cause your breast cancer.
- Food patterns vs individual foods determine how healthy your diet is.
- Cutting out foods you enjoy because they’re not as healthy as you think they should be can trigger guilt and food shame.
- Good, healthy food never hurts, yet sometimes we eat less healthy foods simply for the pure joy (or enjoyment) of doing so; and that’s okay.
- Be deliberate in nourishing your body with healthy, delicious meals, yet flexible in your choices.
If this article helpful was helpful to you, and you know someone else in the breast cancer community who would benefit, please do me an enormous favor and SHARE it! #gratitude
- Understanding meal patterns: definitions, methodology and impact on nutrient intake and diet quality
- Ten Ways to Lower Your Cancer Risk
- Reducing the Risk of Breast Cancer Recurrence: an Evaluation of the Effects and Mechanisms of Diet and Exercise
- Definition of FOOD
- Breast Cancer. How diet, nutrition and physical activity affect breast cancer risk.