Everyday, without fail, I am asked by my patients what they need to do to make sure they don’t get cancer or how to make sure they don’t get cancer again. This is a very natural question. An obvious question. Amazingly, in the 12 years I spent getting a medical education, including 4 years of medical school, 5 years of general surgery residency, 2 years of a research fellowship in breast and thyroid cancers, and 1 year in a Breast Surgical Oncology fellowship, not even 12 hours of this time was dedicated to nutritional health education. What I did learn, however, was how to ask questions and where to go for answers.
After a few years of getting this same obvious question of nutrition again and again from my well-deserving patients, I finally felt the urge to educate myself. The sheepish answer of “low-fat, low-carb diet” wasn’t cutting it. So I starting reading and listening to audiobooks and researching the issues. Part of this drive was a personal quest with understanding weight control and in doing so I acquired a wealth of knowledge in nutrition that I was desperately missing. Interestingly, similar themes were repeated over and over. While there is probably no universal diet for all persons given our unique genetic codes, environments, and experiences, there are certainly guidelines that can apply to all of us for what I call “Nutrition for Life.” These basic guidelines apply for cancer risk, weight control, heart disease, diabetes, aging, gastrointestinal problems, skin and hair problems, and more.
Here are the three main principles:
First, we need to eat less.
Second, we should eat less frequently.
Third, we have to start eating more of the right things.
2000 calories a day is WAY TOO MUCH for most of us.
The Food and Drug Administration chose this number in the 1990’s after surveying Americans self-reported caloric intake and as a way to provide an “average” for food labels. Noting that the majority of Americans are obese, it should be no surprise that the amount of caloric intake most of us need is much less, closer to 1400 – 1800 calories per day. Certainly, for the rare high-endurance athlete or manual laborer, the daily caloric intake needed to maintain weight will be higher, and for some, even over 2000 calories a day. This higher need is an exception, not the norm. Excess calories not only leads to obesity, it leads to inflammation which in turn leads to poorer health outcomes such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Pay close attention to the volume of food you consume, and consider scaling down if you are interesting in weight loss or better health.
Frequent snacking will not promote weight loss.
In order for our body to know that it should tap into our fat stores, we need to safely deprive our bodies of glucose and fructose. By constantly snacking or drinking caloric beverages, our bodies will not know that it should utilize our fat storages. Sure, many diets and weight loss programs promote 5-7 small meals a day and tout many success stories. These plans work because the daily calories consumed will be much lower than what was consumed prior to the plan. Eventually, however, the body will hit a set point and then adapt to this new eating plan. Weight loss will plateau and you will be left frustrated that what had been working is no longer working. Often, a rebound occurs here and you are back to (or worse, heavier than!) where you started.
Instead, consider only eating at mealtime and give your body a chance to feel hungry and maybe access the stores of energy and fuel you carry. Typically, most Americans are only “fasting” when they are asleep, but this can be done more often by skipping a meal or considering one day a week of only eating one meal, with coffee or water for the rest of the time.
Finally, we need to learn WHAT to eat. We have been fooled by commercials, advertisements, and other marketing tools into what might be “nutritious” and what is plain unhealthy. Most of this is obvious—eat more vegetables, eat less sweets—but some of it is subtle. Don’t be fooled by box labels, and in fact, if you are reading a box label, there is probably something healthier for you to be choosing to eat.
Here are two common myths revealed:
- Low-fat is not always better than “full-fat.” Certainly foods high in saturated fat are less healthy than those with unsaturated fat, but low-fat options are often more palatable by all of the added sugar. Sugars are what promote inflammation that leads to obesity, diabetes, and cancer so if you need to chose between low-fat and “full-fat”, consider the full-fat option. It will be more filling and likely less full of unnecessary sugars.
- Juicing will not likely lead to weight loss. While it has become quite a trend to eat raw fruits and vegetables by blending them into a colorful drink, it is quite unnatural to be consuming so much so quickly and the sugar content is unhealthy, to say the least. For example, an 8oz glass of juice made of kale, banana, apples, and blueberries can have over 350 calories and 55 grams of sugar. That’s twice as much sugar as recommended for the whole day! Side note, there’s “only” 39 grams of sugar in a can of Coke. So while juice seems like a healthy choice, eat the fruit whole and you will do your body a big favor.
Now you may be asking WHAT SHOULD WE BE EATING??
The following is a guideline that is by no means comprehensive, but certainly a good starting point for what to focus on eating. Hopefully it will inspire you to do some more research into these topics and improve your health.
Food to have daily:
- Healthy Fats: Avocados, Olive Oil, Nuts, Nut butters
- Green Leafy Vegetables: You cannot eat too much of this, ever!
- Probiotics: You can find this in many forms—sauerkraut, beets, yogurt/kefir, kombucha, kimchi, pickled foods, apple cider vinegar
Food to have in limited quantities:
- Fruit. Choose organic, seasonal berries and make this dessert.
- Dark chocolate. 72% or higher cacao content will provide nutrients, antioxidants, and wonderful flavor.
- Alcohol. No more than 1 beverage per day for women and up to 2 per day for men. (1 beverage = 12oz beer, 5oz wine, or 1.5oz spirit)
Food to avoid:
- Processed foods. Anything in a package with preservatives and added sugar
- Processed meat. This includes sausage, bacon, cold-cuts, and meat that has been charred. Processed meat has been shown to be carcinogenic. If you choose to eat meat, choose grass-fed, organic meat and choose a gentle cooking method to limit the carcinogens.
- Deep fried foods. This goes without saying.
- Refined carbohydrates. This includes white bread, pasta, cereals, and pastries.
Nutrition for Life is suitable for most people with most health conditions, but it is not appropriate for every medical condition. If you have severe allergies or other sensitivities, consult your physician before making any changes to your diet.