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Making Small Nutrition Changes after a Cancer Diagnosis

This month in the Q&A we talked about small nutrition changes which you could make after cancer. Feeling compelled to radically change your diet is a common and understandable reaction to the shock of a cancer diagnosis. The diagnosis leads many people to consider just how profound the effect of the foods you put into your body can be on your health. It can be tempting to jump right in and make big changes, but is this the best approach to take?

Big change or small change?

Let’s consider two busy women, Susan and Amanda, who have different ideas for changing their nutrition following their cancer diagnosis. They both consider their diets to be reasonably good, in that they cook from scratch and avoid ultra-processed foods as much as they can, but both see the potential for improvement. Susan decides that she is going to make fresh vegetable juices twice a day to increase the amounts of plant nutrients she consumes. Amanda reads about the benefits of culinary herbs and spices, so she restocks her spice rack with new dried herbs and spices.

Susan’s juicing starts well. A friend lends her a juicer, and she buys lots of vegetables for juicing. At first, she juices twice a day and really enjoys it. After about ten days, however, things start to go wrong. Susan had underestimated just how many vegetables she would need, and as she doesn’t pass a supermarket on her way to and from work every day, and treatment-related fatigue means that she does not have the energy to make separate trips, she often finds herself with nothing left to juice. Neither does she always have time to wash the juicer in the morning before leaving for work, so that when she comes home at the end of the day she does not feel like juicing if it means she has to wash up before and afterwards. After a month or so, Susan’s juicing peters out. She feels discouraged from making many other changes, saying to herself that because she is so busy, any further modifications to her diet would probably cause her too much stress to be worth it. She doesn’t even juice occasionally as she had set out with the aim of doing it regularly and, in her own eyes, had failed at that.

Amanda starts by sprinkling ground turmeric over anything that is yellow or orange in colour: in scrambled eggs, on salmon fillets and chicken breasts before baking and on sweet potato chips before roasting. She reads some online guides on which foods pair well with culinary herbs and spices, and this helps her to add at least one herb/spice to every meal she makes. She finds this easy to stick to as she doesn’t have to change her meals; she just adds to them. After a month, Amanda feels proud of herself for having been consistent in getting more herbs and spices into her diet. She plants some herbs in her garden so that she will soon have access to fresh herbs. Next, she starts thinking about what change she could make next.

Those stories may be over-simplified, and I’m certainly not saying that nobody should try juicing after a cancer diagnosis, as it can be beneficial if you can manage it. However, the stories serve to illustrate an important point. Big changes are admirable, but tend to be difficult to sustain. This is especially true when life gets busy. As a result, the person who tried to change can feel discouraged as Susan did, or a spiral of negative thinking can start. This is demotivating and can stop the desire to change in its tracks. By contrast, small changes, even those that may seem to be too small to be worthwhile, are easier to maintain. As a result, the person who has made the change feels a sense of achievement and self-empowerment, and is often motivated to add another change once the first one is established. You can think of this as “domino effect” or a “ripple effect” – one small movement results in change that spreads out widely.

Where to start

First, the good news: there are lots of small changes that will have a positive impact on your health, so you can find one that will work well for you.

Then the bad news: there are lots of small changes that will have a positive impact on your health, so how do you start without getting overwhelmed?

It would be very easy for me to come up with a long list of all the small changes that you could make. Yet of course this could just make you feel that you should be making lots of small changes, which in fact translates into big change in your life. Not terribly helpful. Instead, I would first encourage you to try to tune in to what feels right for you. Then I have suggested three approaches to choose from when starting to make change.

Finding what is right for you and your life, rather than for anyone else, is very important if you want to be successful in making and maintaining change. Consider your diet, and what you have learnt (from reputable sources, including here at Get Me Back!) about nutrition after a cancer diagnosis. Asking yourself the following questions might help you to narrow down where you can start:

  • Which aspect of my diet feels furthest removed from what would best nourish me?

  • Is there a food or group of foods I want to eat more of?

  • Is there a food or group of foods I want to eat less of? (Be realistic about what is sustainable here)

  • At what time in the day am I most motivated, ie most likely to stick to any change I plan?

  • What would the practicalities of making this change be (eg more regular shopping trips, getting up 10 minutes earlier, finding new recipes, asking family for their support)?

Ways of changing

Once you have answered the questions above, you may already have a feel for where you could start making change. Thinking about one of these categories can also help. In the interests of keeping change small and achievable, I would urge you to only pick the approach that most appeals to you, and take only one example from within that category.

1.      What can I add to my diet?

This is a great approach to making change because it is so positive. Adding foods is to your diet is an easier change psychologically than removing foods. The focus is on nourishing yourself with additional nutrients, and if you are adding more plant foods it can also nourish your gut microbiome. Restriction is not the aim, but adding healthy foods to your diet inevitably crowds out some less healthy options. Options might include:

  • Herbs and spices – aim for at least one per meal

  • Fermented foods – sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha

  • Seeds – sprinkled on top of meals

  • Seaweed – often overlooked, a rich source of minerals (especially iodine)

  • Sprouting seeds/microgreens – broccoli, alfalfa, radish, kale, mung bean

  • More water

  • One extra portion of vegetables daily


2.      Is there an easy swap I can make?

Swaps tend to make for very successful changes, because the new food (the swap) fits effortlessly into an existing habit (a meal you make).

  • Whole grains instead of refined grains, eg jumbo oats instead of quick oats

  • Herbal teas or dandelion/chicory coffee instead of one of your daily caffeinated drinks

  • Extra virgin olive oil instead of sunflower oil

  • Nuts instead of crisps

  • Kombucha instead of a fizzy soft drink

  • Seaweed instead of salt


3.      Pick a meal

This is an approach I often use with clients. We often start with breakfast, partly because it is often where there is the most potential for improvement, but partly because it can set a healthier tone for the rest of the day. However, you can start wherever you think you will be able to make a change the most easily.

  • Breakfast – ensure it contains enough protein, as we have discussed before

  • Lunch – see it as an opportunity to eat vegetables, as relying on dinner alone will not give you adequate vegetable intake

  • Dinner – make sure you have planned your evening meals so that you have healthy choices in your fridge, freezer or cupboard

  • Snacks – do you need them? Are they providing you with nutrients? Are you eating them mindfully or mindlessly?

Hopefully you can now start to pinpoint one thing to change that you might like to start with. That is enough! Make your small change have a big impact by planning for it to last; small changes done week after week will have much more effect on your health than something more difficult that you only manage to do once or twice. Spending some time on preparation – shopping, finding recipes, clearing your kitchen of any foods you don’t want to eat, making sure anyone who eats with you knows what you are planning – will also increase the likelihood of your change being one that sticks!

Good luck, and I would love to read in the comments what changes have stuck for you, or what your planned changes are.

Making Small Nutrition Changes after a Cancer Diagnosis
Making Small Nutrition Changes after a Cancer Diagnosis

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