If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, you probably have a lot of questions and worries. There’s one less thing to worry about, though — nutrition for breast cancer patients doesn’t have to be complicated.
There is a reason they say, “You are what you eat." Your diet has direct effects on your health. That’s true at any time, but especially true when you’re fighting an illness or undergoing medical treatment.
Making some small tweaks to your diet can have a big impact on how you feel during cancer treatment and manage the effects of treatment. Carlie Hill, RD, LD, CDCES, answers some common questions about nutrition for breast cancer patients.
Q: What role does nutrition for breast cancer patients play during treatment?
Hill: During treatment, nutrition goals should be focused around preventing unintentional weight loss generally caused by lack of appetite, mouth sores or changes in taste acuity or food aversions.
It’s also important to work on maintaining a healthy gut microbiome with probiotics, which helps boost the immune system. Adequate hydration is also key since dehydration disrupts all aspects of health.
Q: What foods are particularly beneficial for breast cancer patients during treatment?
Hill: Eat more plants. Numerous studies have been conducted to assess the value of plant-based diets on disease prevention and treatment. Phytochemicals, which are responsible for giving plants their rich colors, are non-nutritive, natural plant chemicals.
Each color has one or more “phytonutrient,” which are beneficial in preventing cancer in the first place, keeping it from spreading, and keeping it from recurring. The darker and richer the color of the fruit or vegetable, the more phytonutrient-dense it is.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend including a variety of all the rainbow colors in the diet every day. This gives a whole new meaning to “taste the rainbow.”
Q: Should any foods be avoided during treatment?
Hill: It’s a good idea to limit the consumption of alcohol and highly processed or fried foods. The American Dietary Guidelines of 2020-2025 recommend no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Highly processed and fried foods contain trans fats, which are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer.
Q: Are supplements helpful as part of nutrition for breast cancer patients?
Hill: In some cases, yes. Talk with your medical providers or a dietitian about whether they’d be beneficial for you.
Studies have shown that certain strains of bacteria can promote cancer cell destruction and enhance the effectiveness of treatment. You may want to consider adding probiotic supplements to your diet.
Curcumin is another supplement that may be beneficial. This compound found in turmeric has high antioxidant properties that may be effective against certain types of breast cancer.
And finally, oral nutrition supplements like Ensure, Boost and Glucerna can help promote adequate calorie intake and prevent weight loss. If the texture or temperature of food becomes a problem during breast cancer treatment, oral rehydration solutions formulated as popsicles can help keep you nourished and hydrated.
Q: How should nutrition for breast cancer patients change during different types of treatment?
Hill: Different types of treatment cause different side effects, leading to different nutritional needs.
Patients may be placed on hormone therapy or steroids after a round of chemo, which can interfere with metabolism and lead to elevated blood sugar and weight gain. During this time, it is especially important to choose carbohydrates from whole foods such as beans, whole grains, and starchy vegetables rather than desserts or sugary beverages.
After radiation, patients can develop what is known as radiation-induced diarrhea, which can cause a loss of fluids and important nutrients. Radiation causes severe inflammation to the intestines, which may resolve within a week or could last for longer. Drinking water and eating fruits and vegetables with a high water content can help keep you hydrated.
The most important tip I can offer for those diagnosed with breast cancer is to work with a registered dietitian for evidence-based nutrition education and guidance. He or she can step you through what’s needed and what may be helpful as you go through treatment.
Breast Cancer Care at University Health
Learn more about breast cancer services at University Health in San Antonio.