“You know, there’s a right and wrong way to do EVERYTHING.”
Oliver Hardy, the American comic actor (and one half of Laurel and Hardy) said that.
He didn’t work in breast cancer nutrition.
Even though nutrition is science, not comedy, I’ve encountered some pretty comical breast cancer diet and nutrition recommendations.
A quick Google search on breast cancer diet can leave me thinking, “Surely, they must be joking.”
All joking aside, well-researched, evidence-based recommendations DO exist for breast cancer nutrition.
But the idea that there’s a single RIGHT nutrition plan for every woman with breast cancer is ludicrous.
Here are four reasons why there is no one “right” type of nutrition for breast cancer:
Ethnicity refers to your cultures, customs and often, lifestyle choices. (1) Think about your own diet and how strongly your food preferences are influenced by habits, likes, and dislikes connected to your culture.
For example, is it customary in your culture to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, or favor more meat-centric dishes?
If meat and animal products are a main focus of your traditional foods, adopting a plant-based diet (a consistent breast cancer nutrition recommendation) may prove challenging.
How far have your current nutrition habits strayed from the traditional eating patterns of your heritage? Abandoning traditional diets for the standard American or Westernized diet can mean eating fewer nutritious, whole foods and more highly processed, less nourishing foods. (2)
To upgrade your diet, try blending your traditional cultural diet patterns with current breast cancer diet guidelines. This creates an approach that honors your ancestry and your health. (3)
Your position in the menopausal timeline influences several breast cancer diet recommendations. (4)
For example, alcohol is considered a probable cause of premenopausal breast cancer. Alcohol is considered a convincing cause of postmenopausal breast cancer. FYI, “convincing” is stronger than “probable.” (5)
There is also limited–suggestive evidence that consuming dairy decreases the risk of premenopausal breast cancer. (4, 6) No such connection is seen between dairy products and postmenopausal breast cancer.
While these guidelines speak to reducing the risk of an initial breast cancer diagnosis, there’s no reason to not consider using them to weigh the risk for breast cancer recurrence.
Some research suggests that drinking alcohol doesn’t increase the risk of dying from breast cancer. Yet particularly for postmenopausal women, drinking alcohol can increase the risk of recurrence and/or getting cancer in the first place. (5)
As we learn more about the nuances of menopausal status, tumor biology, and specific foods, we’ll gain a greater understanding of how to fine-tune our diet. Until then, consider the recommendations above, and work with a registered dietitian to craft an eating plan that fits your unique needs.
What do you like to eat?
Quite simply, THAT’S what food preferences are. Earlier I spoke about food preferences influenced by ethnicity. Here I speak strictly to foods you enjoy versus foods you wouldn’t touch even if stranded on a desert island.
Do you dislike certain foods or food groups recommended for their protective compounds (ahem, veggies)? This is more common than you might think.
Achieving grown-up status earns you the right of food refusal. However, skipping the produce can make you feel guilty, as if regularly bypassing broccoli will bring your cancer back.
Try writing a list of ALL the foods you enjoy (especially in the fruit and veg categories). I’ve had clients swear they hate vegetables, and in the next breath wax poetic about potato salad.
Potatoes are vegetables! They’re loaded with vitamin C, a good source of fiber, and have more potassium than a banana.
Yes, they’re starchy, a consideration if you have diabetes. Of course potato salad would never be mistaken for kale salad, but you’ve got to start somewhere!
Food Allergies and Intolerances
Allergies and intolerances are more serious than an aversion; they can be life-threatening.
Consider a true diagnosis of celiac disease (gluten-sensitive enteropathy). Celiac disease is neither an allergy nor an intolerance, but an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Symptoms can include anemia, osteoporosis, even injury to the nervous system. (7)
Lactose intolerance isn’t life-threatening, but the symptoms can feel like it! (8) The inability to digest milk sugar (lactose) in dairy foods can lead to diarrhea, bloating and gas. If you experience these symptoms, make sure to get a confirmed diagnosis with lactose tolerance or hydrogen breath test to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms
The threat of these uncomfortable symptoms can also trigger anxiety about eating foods prepared from an unfamiliar source. It’s nearly impossible to enjoy food when you’re anxious.
An allergy to peanuts is probably the most familiar. In some people, peanuts can cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction that requires immediate attention and treatment. (9)
If you have food allergies, intolerances, or other medically managed food concerns, you know what’s required to keep you safe and comfortable. Not only is adjusting food recommendations to support your own requirements encouraged, it’s critical.
Typically you’ll swap in safe substitutes; i.e. lactose-free milk, gluten-free foods and for some people, seeds and other nuts for peanuts. Check out whether the “safe swaps” are deficient in any necessary nutrients.
Wrapping Up the Question of the “Right” Nutrition Plan for Breast Cancer
While there are many more reasons why no single diet plan is right for everyone, these four are worth considering.
When determining what’s the best type of nutrition for breast cancer, start with the guidelines and general recommendations. Then use trial and error to create meal plans that are most adaptable to your lifestyle. If you’re looking for a more customized approach, check out my Breast Cancer Nutrition 101 program.
Even if my program isn’t right for you, please use the guidelines I share in the resources. I want you to build a health-supportive diet that’s safe, sustainable and perhaps most of all – delicious!
Want to learn the basics of a breast cancer diet from me, a registered dietitian and breast cancer survivor?
Create your OWN customized breast cancer nutrition 101 plan! CLICK HERE.
- What you need to know about breast cancer and survivorship part III