10 Ways for Cancer Survivors to Improve Diet and Maintain Good Health

Head shot of Katrina Claghorn

June is National Cancer Survivor Month – congratulations to all cancer survivors!

To help you on your road to wellness, Katrina Claghorn, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at the Abramson Cancer Center, shares some suggestions on diet and exercise that may help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.

Can nutrition help prevent cancer?

Woman at farmer's market

There is so much information about the impact of nutrition on cancer that it can be confusing to know what to do to improve your nutritional status and help reduce the risk of recurrence.

For most people who do not use tobacco, the most important cancer risk factors that can be changed are weight, diet and physical activity. About 20 percent of all preventable cancers diagnosed in the United States are related to body-fat percentage, physical inactivity, excess alcohol consumption, and poor nutrition, according to the World Cancer Research Fund.

What are the guidelines that you should you follow to reduce your cancer risk?

The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute of Cancer Research developed the following guidelines as part of their 2018 Third Expert Report on Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight: Keep your weight as low as you can within a healthy range throughout life and shoot for a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9. 
  2. Be physically active: Limit your sedentary habits and participate in daily physical activity. An average week should include at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity. Examples of moderate activity include a brisk walk, a doubles’ tennis match, or heavy cleaning. Vigorous activities include hiking, playing soccer or running faster than six miles per hour.
  3. Eat whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans: Consume a diet that provides at least 30 grams of fiber from food daily, as well at least five servings of plant foods, which include a variety of non-starchy vegetables and fruits. Incorporate whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, fruit and legumes such as beans and lentils in most meals. And, if you eat starchy roots and tubers as staple foods, make sure you’re also getting non-starchy vegetables, fruit and legumes regularly, too.
  4. Limit processed foods that are high in fat, starches or sugars: Fast food and other processed foods -- pre-prepared dishes, snacks, baked goods, desserts and candy -- are often high in fat, starches or sugars. Limiting these foods helps you control your calorie intake and maintain a healthy weight.
  5. Limit red and processed meats: If you eat red meat, limit consumption to no more than about three portions per week – about 12 to 18 ounces cooked weight. Consume very little, if any, processed meat.
  6. Limit sugar-sweetened drinks: Do not consume sugar-sweetened drinks including soda and sweetened iced tea.
  7. Limit alcohol consumption: For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol.
  8. Don’t rely on supplements: For most people, consuming the right foods and drinks is more likely to protect against cancer than dietary supplements. Be sure to discuss your use of supplements with your medical team.
  9. Breastfeed your baby, if you can: Evidence shows that sustained, exclusive breastfeeding is protective for the mother, as well as the child, against cancer and other diseases.
  10. Ask a professional: All cancer survivors should receive nutritional care and physical activity guidance from trained professionals. Unless otherwise advised, and if they can, all cancer survivors are advised to follow the Cancer Prevention Recommendations as far as possible after the acute stage of treatment.

How can you evaluate your current diet?

There are many tools and resources available to help you eat healthy, get active and take control of your weight. Here are three ways that you can assess your current diet and make necessary changes.

1. Improve your nutritional knowledge 

Do you regularly incorporate fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains into your diet? Is your exercise regimen rigorous enough? Are you reaching for fried foods and baked goods too often?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) created a short online evaluation to answer those questions – and more – and help you identify ways you can improve your daily habits. You can take the quiz here.

2. Develop a plant-based diet

fruits and vegetablesThe American Institute of Cancer Research developed a program – the New American Plate – that emphasizes incorporating more plant foods in your meals. The program includes recipes and practical tips for transitioning to a plant-based diet, which you can read here.

The ACS also has many informative posts and videos on nutrition, as well as tips on developing healthy eating and diet plans.

Some quick, easy and small meal suggestions that incorporate plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains include the following from the ACS.

  • Whole-wheat English-muffin pizzas: Top a whole wheat English muffin with no-sugar-added tomato sauce and low-fat mozzarella cheese. Make sure to also include your favorite vegetables. Mushrooms, onion, green pepper, tomato slices, broccoli florets and artichoke hearts all are delicious and nutritious choices.
  • Couscous: Top Parmesan-flavored couscous with cooked, chopped chicken and your favorite vegetables.
  • Clam pasta: Top whole-grain linguini with marinara sauce and minced clams.
  • Antipasto pasta salad: Top mixed salad greens with whole-wheat penne, vegetables and the cubed low-fat cheese of your choice. Mix in Caesar or Italian dressing, but make sure if you are having more than a small amount of salad to choose a low-fat dressing option.
  • Turkey and bean chili: Make quick-and-easy chili with ground turkey breast, canned kidney beans, tomato sauce, chopped onion, canned chopped tomatoes and a chili seasoning packet.
  • Sweet or savory bagel bites: Top whole-wheat mini bagels with peanut butter or low-fat cheese and a sliced apple.
  • Bean wrap: Stuff whole-wheat tortillas with canned black beans, lettuce, salsa, low-fat shredded cheddar cheese, and low-fat sour cream. Or swap out the sour cream with low-fat plain Greek yogurt.
  • Stuffed potato: Microwave a potato and top with broccoli, cauliflower, and low-fat cheese or low-fat plain Greek yogurt.

The Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group’s Eat Right to Fight Cancer page addresses many of the frequently asked diet questions posed by cancer patients and survivors and includes many healthy, plant-based recipes.

3. Consult a registered dietician nutritionist

When seeking help coping with the side effects of cancer treatment and developing a nutrition plan to implement both during and after treatment, consider requesting a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).

RDNs are the medical nutrition therapists on your cancer treatment team, and many cancer centers, including the Abramson Cancer Center, have RDNs. Many health insurance providers cover nutrition counseling with RDNs.

About This Blog

The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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