The Beat-Cancer Diet

What to eat to feel better, stay stronger, and get healthier, for good.
By Meghan Rabbitt / Recipes by Jeanette Hurt

Of the more than 1 million Americans diagnosed with cancer each year, roughly 700,000 can blame their condition at least in part on their high-fat, low-fiber diets. But a growing body of research suggests it’s never too late to change that. In fact, more and more studies show that eating a healthy diet that’s packed with a variety of whole foods can have a big impact on fighting cancer once it has developed—and on keeping patients in remission. “Reshaping your diet is one of the most important ways you can join your healthcare team as an active participant in fighting relapse of your disease, improving your chances of remission, and nurturing your well-being,” writes Daniel Nixon, MD, in The Cancer Recovery Eating Plan (Three Rivers Press, 1996).

Roberta Anding, RD, a dietician in Houston, says she’s living proof of this. Diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, Anding changed her eating habits to help in her recovery. “Most people are stunned when they learn they have cancer, and it sparks them to start making changes,” she says. “What has helped me—and what I tell my patients to focus on—is to get as much variety in my diet as possible.” The more colorful the fruits and vegetables, the better, says Anding. And shoot to get as many nutrients and minerals from as wide a variety of whole foods as possible. “That’s how I crafted my recovery,” she says, “and it worked.”

How our diet feeds cancer
Following a cancer diagnosis, patients often wonder, “Why me,” says Anding. “It’s so common to ask what you did to bring this diagnosis on,” she says. “But while there is strong research linking diet to some cancer growth, it’s probably not the only cause.” Nixon agrees, explaining in his book that diet most likely stimulates cells with genes that have already been altered to grow into a cancerous tumor. “Poor diet is most likely a promoter of cancer, not an initiator,” he says. For example, cancer cells may already exist in the body, and a diet high in fat may simply provide sufficient energy—and spark certain hormonal changes—for those cells to develop into a tumor.

Numerous studies have found that cutting fat intake can help create an environment in the body that’s unfriendly to cancer cells. A low-fat diet typically means an intake of fewer calories—and too many calories, especially those from fat, provide energy for tumors to grow. Plus, decreasing tumor-stimulating fatty acids (from bad fats like trans fats) and lowering estrogen levels in the body can play a huge role in keeping cancer cells from multiplying. In fact, Nixon says that using a low-fat diet to decrease estrogen levels may work much like the chemotherapy drug tamoxifen.

A high-fat diet is generally low on fiber too, and for most people that translates into a higher risk of cancer. Why? A diet high in fiber helps move food through the gut, giving your body a better shot at flushing out carcinogens. Not eating enough fiber allows those carcinogens more time to build up and stay in the body, where they can damage cell DNA. Studies show that increased fiber intake can also reduce the body’s level of estrogen—which feeds certain cancers, like breast cancer—by changing the way food is absorbed in the gut. To help keep cancer from recurring—or from developing in the first place:

Add foods that contain beta-carotene.
These fruits and veggies are low in fat and high in fiber and other cancer-preventing compounds. Studies have found that certain forms of vitamin A may prevent recurring tumors in breast cancer patients.

Cut out the bad fats.
Shoot for a diet that contains no more than 20 percent of calories from fat, and steer clear of all trans fats.

Eat more fruits and veggies.
Several studies have shown a link between increased produce consumption and a decreased risk of squamous-cell cancers. No particular kind of fruit or vegetable has been singled out as more important than others, and nutritionists recommend at least nine to 12 servings a day for optimal protection and if you’re in recovery. “Be sure to vary the fruits and vegetables, both so you don’t get tired of any one type and so you gain the widest range of healthful elements,” says Anding.

Limit foods containing nitrates and nitrites.
Usually found in processed meat, these preservatives have been linked to cancer.

How food can ease treatment
Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and other cancer treatments can take a serious toll on your immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight the cancer and heal properly. The right foods can help maintain your strength, prevent body tissues from breaking down, and rebuild the normal tissues that have been affected by your treatments. It’s important to keep in mind that your diet will likely need to change to address your reaction to meds and radiation. Here are some common treatment-related symptoms that you can ease with food:

Find you’re tired all the time, especially in the evenings? Pair high-fiber foods with protein at every meal to keep blood sugar levels stable. Anding suggests eating egg whites with whole grain toast for breakfast, a salad with chicken strips for lunch, and lean meat with three different kinds of vegetables for dinner.

When you’ve got the queasies, it might be hard to find any food that’s appetizing. Eat whatever you find yourself in the mood for, any time of day, says Michael Stafford, RD, a clinical dietitian who works with cancer patients at the Medical University of South Carolina. However, avoid greasy, spicy foods with strong odors, as they’re likely to upset your stomach. “And shoot for nutrient-dense foods to make each mouthful count,” he says.

Dry mouth.
Opt for sour foods, like lemons, limes, grapefruit, and tart candies, since they can increase saliva production, says Stafford. Plus, drink plenty of fluids and avoid drinking alcohol and using products that contain alcohol, such as mouthwash.

Drink as many fluids as you can, says Stafford, ideally one cup of water for each episode of diarrhea. And limit caffeine to no more than two cups a day.

Dulled sense of taste.
If some foods taste bland (like veggies), eat them with foods or pair them with condiments that taste good to you (like salad dressing). Tart and sour foods can also be easier for the taste buds to detect.

When You’re Too Tired to Cook
1. Take Advantage Of The A.M. Since you’re likely to feel more alert and energized in the morning, use that time to plan, shop for, and cook your meals. Treatment-induced nausea is often lessened in the mornings, and if that’s the case for you, eat your biggest meal first thing.

2. Plan Ahead. Ask a friend to assemble everything you’ll need to prepare your meals, including the ingredients and all the bowls and appliances, and set them on the counter for you.

3. Sit While You Stir. Invest in a high stool, preferably one with a back, so you can sit comfortably at the counter instead of standing.

Not as Hungry as Usual?
Exercise lightly. If you’ve got the energy, take a walk or do a few yoga poses before mealtime to boost your appetite.

Don’t drink a lot of fluids. Unless you’re suffering from dry mouth, don’t drink anything with your meals; you’ll be too full to eat your food.

Keep high-calorie snacks on hand. Stash snacks around the house—in your nightstand, next to the couch, in your glove compartment—so they’re easy to grab when you do feel hungry.

Eat small, frequent meals instead of three squares.

Drink fruit juice or smoothies—or any drinks that contain calories—instead of water or zero-calorie beverages.

Make mealtime more enjoyable. Eat in a clean, pretty place, turn on your favorite music, or sit with someone you love.


Egg-White Breakfast Casserole
Serves 6 to 8

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup onions, diced
12 egg whites
1/4 cup fat-free milk
2 slices whole-wheat bread, torn into pieces
1 cup broccoli florets, steamed
1 cup spinach, stems removed, steamed
Pinch nutmeg
Fresh ground pepper and sea salt, to taste
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups fat-free milk
3 to 4 whole cloves; 3 to 4 peppercorns
1 slice of onion
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
2 teaspoons oil drained from sun-dried tomatoes
2 1/2 teaspoons whole-wheat flour
Cayenne, sea salt, pepper to taste

1. Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil and onions. Cook until caramelized.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9- by 9-inch baking dish. Whisk egg whites and milk. Season with cayenne, sea salt, and pepper. Spread bread pieces along bottom of pan; top with caramelized onions, broccoli florets, and spinach. Pour on the egg-white mixture. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper, and the Parmesan cheese. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

3. While casserole bakes, put milk, cloves, pepper- corns, and a slice of onion in a small pot. Cook over medium-high heat about five minutes. Remove from heat. Let stand for 15 minutes.

4. Mince garlic and drained sun-dried tomatoes.

5. Drain milk through a strainer into a bowl to remove cloves, peppercorns, and onion. In same pot, over medium heat, add oil and flour. Stir to make a roux. Slowly add milk, whisking in a little at a time. When thickened, whisk in sun-dried tomatoes and garlic. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste.

6. Serve casserole slices with a tablespoon of sun-dried tomato cream sauce on top.

Nutrition info per serving (based on 6): 152 calories; 3.2 g fat; 0.7 g saturated fat; 2.7 mg cholesterol; 14.5 g protein; 17.3 g carbohydrates; 2.9 g fiber; 304 mg sodium

Chicken Spinach Salad
Serves 4

For the Dressing:
1 orange
1 lime
1 tablespoon cilantro, minced
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch cayenne
Salt, pepper to taste

1. Zest orange and lime, setting aside 1 teaspoon orange zest and 1/2 teaspoon lime zest. Juice orange and 1/2 of lime, reserving second half for chicken.

2. Using a food processor, add juices, zests, cilantro, honey, and mustard. Pulse until well mixed. Add olive oil, a little bit at a time, and pulse until emulsified. Add cayenne, salt, and pepper to taste.

For the Salad:
6 cups spinach leaves
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onions
3 Roma tomatoes, sliced lengthwise
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1/2 cup baby carrots, cut matchstick thin
1/3 cup dried cherries
1/3 cup shelled pistachios
2 tablespoons whole-wheat fl our
1 teaspoon orange zest
1/2 teaspoon lime zest
Pinch cayenne
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large chicken breasts (about 1 pound)
Juice of 1/2 lime

1. Mix first seven ingredients in a bowl.

2. In a separate, small bowl, mix flour, fruit zests, and cayenne.

3. Pound the chicken breasts to 1/2- to 3/4-inch thickness and dredge in flour mixture.

4. Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. After one minute, add oil and chicken breasts. Turn every two minutes, cooking for 10 minutes. Squeeze the juice of half a lime over the chicken. Remove from heat, slice, add to salad, toss with dressing, and serve.

Nutrition info per serving: 451 calories; 22.4 g fat; 3.2 g saturated fat; 68.4 mg cholesterol; 33.1 g protein; 31.5 g carbohydrates; 5.5 g fiber; 157.6 mg sodium

Yogurt Parfait With Grapefruit, Berries, and Granola
Serves 4

2 cups plain Greek-style or regular yogurt with the whey drained
3 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons vanilla extract, preferably Tahitian vanilla
2 grapefruits, peeled and segmented with the pith removed
2 kiwis, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup of organic raspberries
1/4 cup of organic blackberries
1/4 cup of organic strawberries
1/4 cup of organic blueberries
2 tablespoons granola or crushed nuts
1 tablespoon cinnamon

1. In a large bowl, mix yogurt, 2 table- spoons honey, and vanilla.

2. In a separate bowl, mix together fruit.

3. In four separate parfait glasses, add the fruit and yogurt in alternating layers. Top with granola, and drizzle with honey. Sprinkle with cinnamon.

Nutrition info per serving: 215 calories; 2 g fat; 0.3 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 10.4 g protein; 40.2 g carbohydrates; 5.3 g fiber; 40.3 mg sodium