February is both National Cancer Prevention Month and American Heart Month. Both of these awareness events encourage people to take steps to improve their health and reduce their risk of disease. What eating strategy can help with these goals? Plant-based eating supports both cancer prevention and heart health.
What is plant-based eating?
A Nielsen Homescan survey in 2017 found that 39% of Americans are actively trying to eat more plant-based foods. There is not a specific definition of plant-based eating. Some people consider plant-based eating to be following a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle that eliminates most or all animal products. Others consider it aiming to eat more plant-based foods while decreasing, but not eliminating, animal products. U.S. News & World Report shared a list of their “Best Plant-Based Diets” so there is no single diet plan called the plant-based diet.
Plant-based based eating is not so much a “diet” as it is a focus or strategy for eating. One easy explanation is that plant-based eating means that at least 60-75% of your foods come from plants such as vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, nuts and seeds.
What are the benefits of plant-based eating?
Plant-based eating adds phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and fibers that may be difficult to consume in adequate amounts if you eat the typical Western diet of fifty percent animal protein at meals. Plant foods are also often lower in calories than animal products. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, phytochemicals (phytonutrients) are a powerful cancer-fighting component help
- Fight cancer cell formation and replication
- Rebuild healthy cells including immune cells
- Regulate hormones
- Reduce certain types of inflammation.
Foods that contain these phytochemicals are often brightly colored or strong in flavor. See Boosting Your Immune System for specific food suggestions. Remember the best place to get nutrients is from real foods, not from dietary supplements, so include these foods in your meals often.
Is plant-based eating safe for cancer patients?
Plant-based eating is safe for many people who have cancer. However, nutritional needs can differ and people in cancer treatment may need to modify their plant-based approach.
People experiencing side effects such as unwanted weight loss, difficulty chewing or swallowing, and digestive issues such bloating, constipation or diarrhea may need to take special steps to consume more plant-based foods. For example, foods may need to be cut into smaller pieces, or vegetables may need to be cooked instead of eaten fresh.
People receiving cancer treatment may also have food restrictions to address specific eating challenges. See the table below for some examples of the types of food restrictions that may affect plant-based eating.
|Compromised immune system
|After a stem cell transplant, patients need to avoid raw sprouts, salad bars and other foods associated with foodborne illness.|
|Adverse reactions with medications||Grapefruit can interact with the chemotherapy drugs erverolimus, dasatinib, or vemurafenib.
|Food allergies or intolerances
|People with celiac disease need to avoid gluten.|
|Surgery to digestive tract
|A fiber-restricted diet may be recommended following intestinal surgery.|
A registered dietitian can help you to plan a plant-based menu that meets your needs. Always follow the food guidelines provided by your healthcare team.
How can I make the switch to plant-based eating?
For plant-based eating, use the tips below:
- Aim for these portions: Fill at least 75% of your plate with plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, whole-grains and beans. Plan your meals around plants instead of meat or animal products. Choose a colorful variety of vegetables and fruits to get the most nutrients. Keep animal proteins (meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy) to 25% or less of your plate.
- Look to plants for protein. Instead of always choosing animal proteins, try adding more plant proteins to your meals such as beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Swap animal proteins for plant proteins at one or two meals a day to work toward your plant-based eating goals.
- Be mindful of processed foods. Not all plant-based foods are created equally. Some have large amounts of fats and preservatives including salt, artificial colors, flavorings, sweeteners and animal products that may increase the fat and calorie content. Processed foods may also contribute to food sensitivity issues. Choose less-processed plant-based foods.
- Make a gradual change. Don’t make a sudden change to your diet, especially if you have digestive issues or food sensitivities. You may have to modify your plant-based approach. Plant fibers can contribute to digestive issues. You may want to try cooked vegetables instead of salads. Eat smaller servings. Add grated or cooked plants to smoothies or soups for better tolerance. Gradually work your way to plant-based eating. The more important thing is that you are eating more plants!
What’s the bottom line?
Eat more of what matters at meals and snacks. Nutrient-dense plants provide a variety of nutrients and phytochemicals to support health and recovery. For people in cancer treatment, fruits, vegetable, whole gains, lean proteins, healthy fats and hydration support positive treatment outcomes and side effect management. Plant-based eating can also reduce your risk of other diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Always talk to your healthcare team before making any changes to your diet or lifestyle.
For more on plant-based eating, visit these resources