Making meals healthy and simple
A breast cancer diagnosis puts a lot of stress on your body and mind. Treatments, surgeries, and medicines along with countless appointments may make you feel sick and tired. Good nutrition may help ease some side effects and can help keep your body healthy as it recovers both during treatments and after treatment ends. But even if you want to eat better, healthy food choices can seem difficult to make.
With help and the right information, making healthy food choices can actually be quite simple and save you money and time. As with any changes to your daily habits, it’s easier if you start with a plan. On this page you can find tips and information for healthier eating during and after breast cancer treatment. Don’t feel you have to do everything right now. Start with a few easy changes. Try to make one new change every week or two, and after a few weeks you’ll find you’re eating much healthier than you were before.
The food groups
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a tool called MyPlate, which shows how the five main food groups make up a healthy meal.
Different foods have nutrients your body needs to work at its best. Dairy products have calcium, meats and fish are full of protein and good fats, and fruits and vegetables have a mix of important vitamins and minerals. Your body needs all of these – vitamins, protein, fats, and minerals – to be healthy.
No single food item gives you all the nutrients to live and be healthy, so you should eat a variety of foods each day and throughout the week.
The focus of your diet should be on plant-based foods like vegetables, grains and fruits:
- Fruits and vegetables should take up half of your plate, with a little more vegetables than fruits.
- Grains (foods made from wheat, cornmeal, rice, oats, etc.) should be about the same share as vegetables.
- Protein — the category that includes meat, fish, eggs and beans — should make up a little less than a fourth of your plate.
- Dairy, which includes milk, yogurt, and cheese, is an even smaller share of the meal.
Within each group, different foods provide different benefits. If you have a banana every day as your main fruit serving, you can miss the benefits of citrus fruits like oranges, which are higher in vitamin C.
Vegetables can be split into smaller groups with their own mix of nutrients. You don’t have to get vegetables from every subgroup into every meal, but over the course of a week or so you should try to eat some vegetables from each type including:
- dark greens
- including spinach, broccoli, kale, and collard greens.
- red and orange vegetables
- including red peppers, sweet potato, carrots, and tomatoes
- starchy vegetables
- including potatoes, green peas, and corn
- including cauliflower, celery, mushrooms, and onions
You may have heard people talking about “whole foods,” or maybe your doctor recommended that you eat more of them. But what is a “whole food”?
Whole foods are food items that are either fresh or that have been changed as little as possible by the companies that package them. Most often whole foods are the front, back, and side aisles of the store. Examples of whole foods include:
- fresh vegetables from the produce section
- basic cuts of meat and fish
- frozen vegetables and fruits that haven’t been packaged in a sauce or had sugar or salt added to them
Flash-frozen or canned foods last longer and are often cheaper than fresh items, but watch out for added ingredients. Flash-freezing is a process to freeze foods rapidly and lock in nutrients. Look for sales and stock up your pantry and freezer.
- Frozen vegetables should include only vegetables. Avoid cheese and butter sauces.
- Canned vegetables often have added salt to help preserve them. Read labels and look for no or low sodium options. Rinse them before use to cut down salt even more.
- Fruits should be canned in their own juices. Watch for added syrups and sugars.
- Most frozen fruits have no added salt, sugar, or chemicals, but read the labels to be sure.
- When buying fresh fruits, look for what is in season. Buy frozen for off-season items.
- Beans and peas can usually be found frozen, dried, or canned. Beans are a healthy and cheap alternative to meat for protein and most of them provide a good source of fiber.
Small changes make a big difference
Don’t worry if you can’t make major changes to your diet right away. It may take a lot of small changes to find a plan you can stick to. There are many ways to eat healthier, but you do not have to do them all. You can make small changes to be healthier while staying comfortable.
You might try swapping some of your favorite foods for healthier choices that are similar. Try:
- baking potatoes instead of frying
- using sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes
- fruit or plain nuts instead of cookies
- plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream
- whole grain bread instead of white, and whole grain pasta instead of regular
- brown rice instead of white rice
Some recipes you use now may have room for healthy foods to be added. You can easily make morning eggs into an omelet with healthy additions like spinach, mushrooms, peppers, or onions. Peppers and onions also make good additions to your home fries or roasted potatoes.
Pre-made meals are available everywhere. Common prepared meals include:
- fast-food restaurants
- microwave meals
- frozen dinners
You may like them because they are easier and quicker than making meals fresh. Sometimes they are even advertised as healthy options. But many prepared meals come with added sugar and salt, breading, sauces, or juices that add calories and flavor but little or no nutrition.
Eating prepared meals is OK every once in a while, but relying on them too much can mean you’re eating more salt, fat, or sugar than your body needs.
If you’re shopping for frozen foods, try buying frozen proteins, vegetables, and grains separately.
Making fresh meals at home is the best way to control what goes in your food. This can be tough, but there are ways to make it easier. See our page on healthy shopping and cooking tips to learn more.
Some grocery stores and food companies have started services that make fresh meals you can pick up or have delivered to your home. These meals can be ready-to-eat or frozen for you to heat up at your convenience.
Meal services are a great suggestion to give people who ask you how they can help you balance your everyday life with cancer treatment. Many allow you to select your preferences online or in-store so your loved ones can make sure you are getting foods you want.