Eating Well With Breast Cancer
Food is life. It fuels our bodies–literally. The energy released by burning calories keeps our hearts going, our lungs pumping, our brains functioning. We can actually go without food for quite some time. But eventually, we shut down and die; without fuel, the furnace sputters out.
Food is life for all of us. And for many of us, life is food, as well. All about food, anyway. If you love to eat, you know what I’m talking about. You plow through cookbooks like novels, stacking them up on your bedside table. Food magazines crowd your mailbox, their weighty glossiness in your hand evoking anticipation of magical dishes to come. You consider a trip to the supermarket a pleasure, not a dolorous duty. You’re a foodie.
And then cancer marches into your life. Suddenly, your pleasure in food diminishes. The emotional punch to the stomach takes your appetite away; the magnetic pull of oven-fresh artisan bread, or a slice of perfect chocolate cake diminishes next to the endless drumbeat of worries in your head. If you have chemo, you may get mouth and throat sores so bad you can barely chew and swallow. Everything tastes like the lid of a tin can. And besides, the nausea keeps you closer to the bathroom than the kitchen. You eat to live; but you no longer live to eat.
Then, after treatment, you find your metabolism has changed. Maybe you’ve been through chemical menopause. Or perhaps you’re taking Tamoxifen, or an aromatase inhibitor. When you read the fine print, it seems like “may promote weight gain” has become the underlying theme of every new treatment. You’re no longer able to enjoy an ice cream cone, a serving of French fries, or even a slice of cheese like you used to, because you KNOW it’s going right to your hips. What’s a foodie to do?
Change your expectations. No, I didn’t say LOWER them; simply shift their direction. After putting on 20 pounds while taking Tamoxifen, I went on a diet that avoided “bad carbs.” I admit, it was hard at first to give up those carbs, some of which had been my best friend for a long time. Splenda replaced sugar in my coffee; sweet potatoes stepped in for white, and I started eating whole-grain crackers, bread, and cereal. And guess what? And guess what? Not only did it work (I lost about 18 of those 20 pounds); I found out I liked eating that way. Especially once I learned how to bake my favorite goodies with whole wheat flour, and take full advantage of fresh fruits and vegetables.
First, the baking. Brownies, cake, cookies, muffins, yeast bread… I love ’em all. But “white flour” is on my list of “bad carbs.” What’s a baker to do? I switched to white whole wheat flour, a 100% whole-grain flour that’s quite definitely a “good carb.” Attention: it doesn’t have that strong, whole-wheaty taste, that kind of bitter, bottom-of-the-teacup flavor. Its fresh, mild flavor adds a new dimension to everything I bake. If this sounds like a sales pitch, I admit I work at King Arthur Flour, my favorite source for white whole wheat flour. Look for it at your supermarket (the organic version is my favorite).
Now, baking with whole wheat flour doesn’t mean you can “eat the whole thing.” As much as you can cut back their fat and sugar some, baked goods are still pretty calorie-heavy. So eat one cookie, not two. Savor the small things in life–isn’t that our post-cancer mantra? Savor small servings.
Next, the fruits and vegetables. I’m lucky to live near a great, inexpensive produce market. I’ve learned to like kale (sautéed/simmered gently with olive oil and garlic), and bok choy (made into kim chee). I buy big, inexpensive bags of onions and peppers and tomatoes, which I toss with olive oil (good fat) and roast in the oven till they’re golden brown and full of flavor. I’ve been feasting for weeks on peaches and plums. And now those super-crisp, ultra-sweet fall apples have appeared…
Am I tempting you? Tempting you to set your foodie sites on a brave new world of healthy eating? Having cancer may mean you lose your appetite temporarily, but if you’re a foodie, it’ll eventually come back. Now, as a survivor, it’s more important than ever for you to eat right. That means good-for-you fats, whole grains, and LOTS of fruits and vegetables–all of which are healthy, and many of which have breast cancer-fighting properties.
Attention: this doesn’t mean you’ve been sentenced to culinary purgatory! Use your imagination; visit foodfit.com on this site, read some cookbooks… you’ll find gazpacho is a sip of pure summer, and whole-wheat brownies can be just as decadent-tasting as the original version. “Food is life” is true for everyone; but as cancer survivors, we need to take it a step further: “HEALTHY food is life.” TASTY healthy food. It’s out there; go find it.
P.S. Check out Take-10 Super Cookies, a recipe I developed incorporating 10 "super" ingredients that the latest research claims help prevent breast cancer.