I talk a lot about cancer fighting foods. Pretty much every day.
I talk to adults, kids, people facing cancer, caregivers, survivors and everyone in between.
Program participants often start their questions with “I have [insert product name] every day. Is it bad for me?”
The first time someone asked me this, I gave them a bit of a blank stare as I processed the question. It was such an odd question to me, because the way that I have spent my training and professional time is focused on how to care for the body and provide it the nutrients that it needs to function. Therefore the idea of focusing on something to evaluate how “bad” it is was outside of my mental framework.
The Question I Wish People Would Ask!
Instead of starting with “how bad is this for me,” I prefer to flip the question around and first ask – “How does this food provide for my needs?”
In some cases (ice cream, brownies, wine, doritos, etc.) the food may be meeting a need that your taste buds have for something delicious and crunchy, or sweet. It might be a social activity like a birthday party or friend’s gathering and the food or drink is meeting a socializing need. There’s nothing wrong with this! It is normal and appropriate for you to enjoy all kinds of foods. Restrictive eating, or following food rules, is not something I suggest, nor do I think it promotes good quality of life. But that’s a topic for another blog post!
When it comes to meeting your nutritional and physical needs for food, there’s a lot to know, but it’s really not complicated. People are so confused by all the fad diets, news stories, sales pitches and contradicting information. But I’m here to ‘dumb it down’ for you today!
Your Phytochemical Meter
This is my favorite way to explain how YOU TOO can provide your body the nutrients it needs. When it comes down to it, science consistently shows that human bodies function at their best when provided with plenty of plants.
No, you don’t have to eat ONLY plants (but if you want to be a vegan, that’s fine). Even meat and/or dairy eaters still need MOSTLY plants.
I like to start by showing class participants that each day you begin with an empty “Phytochemical Meter”.
What are Phytochemicals? Phytochemicals (or phytonutrients) are plant chemicals (aka nutrients) that keep your cells healthy and strong, and help your immune system fight off disease and get rid of unhealthy cells. They are the basis to a cancer fighting diet and the more you get each day, the healthier you are.
No. You cannot get active phytochemicals in a pill. Get it from real food. And know that oftentimes, processing of food removes the majority of phytochemicals. For example: white rice does not have nearly as many phytochemicals as brown rice. And don’t EVEN get me started on “froot loops” or “veggie puffs”! Please.
The goal for someone who wants as good quality of life as possible (reduce cancer risk or live healthy after a diagnosis) is to fill the phytochemical meter as much as possible on most days. That means fitting in plenty of delicious cancer fighting plant foods into each meal, snack, beverage and dessert!
Typical American vs. Healthy Survivor
When speaking to a group of survivors last week, we did a quick comparison of the difference between the phytochemical meter of the ‘Typical American’ and the ‘Healthy Survivor’. Here’s what we came up with:
It’s a little busy, but we tried to be fair about what the typical person would eat. You’ll notice it’s mostly ultraprocessed, refined, packaged, and lacking plant nutrients. The typical American found most of their phytochemicals in their dinner. We also gave them a few from the lettuce and tomato on their burger and a few from the morning coffee. That’s all we could find!
Compare that to the “Healthy Survivor”, who finds phytochemicals in just about every food item that they choose throughout the day. From green tea to nuts for a snack to apples in their dessert. Note that I would encourage EVERYONE to follow the same diet as I would encourage a healthy survivor to follow. All of us are better off with more phytochemicals in our diets!
You will also note that we compared what covers the plate of a Typical American vs. a Healthy Survivor. The typical American covers 1/2 their plate with meat (i.e. no phytochemicals), then most of the other half with a refined, starchy food and a teeny tiny corner for a vegetable covered in cheese sauce. Not many phytochemicals on that plate!
Compare with the Healthy Survivor plate. 1/2 covered in fruits and vegetables, 1/4 for protein (bonus points if it’s a plant source of protein) and 1/4 for a starch (whole grain or vegetable starch). That makes for cancer fighting cuisine!
And This Is What’s Wrong With America’s Diet
The gap between the phytochemical meter of a Typical American vs. a Healthy Survivor is what’s wrong with America’s Diet! Every day and every meal is a choice to get more phytochemicals. Maybe some of the problem with America’s diet is all the “bad stuff” we’re eating. But I don’t think we should focus on that. Having some of your favorite foods, even if they are ultraprocessed, is ok sometimes!
I think the bigger issue is what a typical American is NOT getting in their diet. All the phytochemicals that they are missing out on. Our bodies need these plant nutrients in order to function well and feel good. Our body has no choice but to manage with whatever we give it. If day after day after week after month after year, we do not provide it with the phytochemicals it needs, then we have problems.
My challenge to you is to spend a day or two writing down the fruits and veggies that that you eat. A simple list will suffice, you don’t have to weigh or measure things. Let it be a starting point to figure out how you can tweak the foods you include in your day into one that promotes good quality of life instead of one that gets you what the typical American is getting right now.
Spread the word!
PS – There are times that people cannot eat lots of plants. I call these “seasons”. Maybe you have a finicky gut, or you’re currently in cancer treatment and you can only eat milkshakes, or you have a picky eater phase of life. Your body can handle these seasons of eating less plants! Just get what you can to provide your body calories and protein, and when you start moving out of this season, THEN you can start thinking about all the plants you want to eat! Give yourself a pass during the hard times and practice good self care by caring for yourself emotionally and moving your body in ways that feel good to you.