I’ve been asked to write something about nutrition from one of my regular readers. I’ve been reluctant to do so, firstly because I don’t consider myself to have any expertise in this area and secondly because it seems that writing about nutrition is a good way to get some people’s backs up. Still, the person making the request has been such a great supporter of my blog that I feel I owe her this one.
Let’s start with some important caveats. I don’t think anyone has come up with the definitive guide to human nutrition. Yes, there’s mountains of research and evidence of what nutritional deficiency looks like, but the jury is out on how best to nourish our bodies. It seems that for every piece of research recommending we eat something (or a combination of things) there’s another piece of research telling us to avoid exactly the same things. It’s frustrating. I can remember when eggs were off the menu and we were all supposed to increase the amount of whole grains in our diet. Now grains are out and eggs are back and butter is a superfood. Chances are that anything I write today about nutrition will be obsolete by next year, assuming it had any relevance at all.
I also think my friend, Cat, has the best advice about nutrition; we are all different. What works for one person may be poison for another. Human beings are incredibly complex organisms. Actually, we’re not even individual organisms. Each of us is a collective of bacteria, symbiotic organisms and parasites that feed on us. Our DNA has been affected by the things our bodies have been through and also by the things our ancestors were exposed to. As an example, it turns out that my ability to digest dairy products is directly related to my ancestors keeping cows in the house. Amazing. If your ancestors were rice growers or camel herders then you might not be able to digest dairy at all.
The risk with nutrition is that we can become obsessive about it. As a cancer survivor I understand this. Food is one of the few things I can control and I recognise my own desire to see it as a way to prevent cancer coming back. This idea is much more appealing that the thought that there is nothing I can do that will make any difference at all. I really do think good nutrition will make a difference to my odds, but I also accept that it’s possible to do everything ‘right’ and to still have cancer come back. Cancer is like that.
I’ve decided to pay more attention to what goes into my mouth because I want to be as fit and healthy as I can be. That’s the foundation for my interest in good nutrition. Regular readers will know that my investigative background makes me highly skeptical about anything that isn’t backed by decent research (and just a little skeptical about things that are; a lot of nutrition research is funded by those with vested interests). I’ve done some reading and reached some tentative conclusions. This is the current state of my thinking on nutrition.
1. I love my body as it is, right now. I will not beat myself up over the extra kilos I gained during chemotherapy or the extra kilos I had before I started treatment. My body has done an amazing job of fighting cancer. I love it. Scars and all. I think all good nutrition starts here.
2. I don’t care about scales or the BMI chart. I can determine whether or not I am a healthy weight by how I feel in my clothes and how easily I can climb a flight of stairs. Around about the middle of a size twelve is a good size for me (I’m about 5’6″). At a size 12 the BMI chart says I’m overweight. Screw you BMI!
3. I recognise that the stress associated with trying to meet some arbitrary standard of thinness is a major cause of weight gain. Stress hormones cause people to store fat. Same goes for other sources of stress in my life, including lack of sleep or anxiety. See also point 1 on this issue.
4. Not having enough water places my body under stress. My body reads dehydration as a threat and shifts my metabolism to protect my major organs and to hang on to as much fat as possible. What a good body it is, trying to keep me safe. I need to drink plenty of water to be healthy.
5. It doesn’t matter so much about the quantity of food I eat. What really matters is the quality. I’ve had times in my life where I counted calories and the weight wouldn’t shift. I know now that the poor quality of the food I was eating put my body under stress and caused it to store fat. I could eat a whole bucket of beautiful organic vegetables three times a day and I would NOT be overweight. See what I mean about quantity? The best thing about eating a high quality diet is that you can’t possibly over eat.
6. Poor nutrition is a major source of hunger. Calorie counting (or as my Weight Watcher’s co-ordinator called it ‘points counting’) is pointless if the calories reside in poor quality food. My wonderful, clever body knew I wasn’t getting enough essential nutrients and so it told me to eat more. Unfortunately I tended to scramble this signal and respond with the wrong kind of food. Figuring this one out meant never being hungry again. Really. Never.
7. Low fat diets and most low fat foods are unhealthy and place the body under stress. You’ve figured out by now what I think the major cause of weight gain is likely to be, haven’t you. Yes. Stress. Healthy fats are essential to good health. They help us absorb essential nutrients and they also help us to feel satisfied. That’s why you’re hungry all the time on a low fat diet. Your body is trying to tell you that you NEED fat to be healthy.
8. Most of us need to eat at a lot more vegetables. Loads more. Heaps more. And a couple of pieces of fruit every day. The great thing about vegetables is that you really can eat as much of them as you want. Pile your plate high and dig in. I buy as much organic, locally grown produce as I can. I’m also lucky enough to have a garden. Even commercially farmed vegetables will give your body more nutrition than processed ‘diet’ food.
9. The ‘food pyramid’ is nonsense and likely the product of some serious lobbying by some members of the food industry. How many serves of grains and cereals in a day? Really? Let’s be clear. Nobody ever died of a grain deficiency. Many people are gluten intolerant and many others find that foods like bread and biscuits trigger overeating. Your body needs fresh vegetables and some protein. Have a look at the diets of people in some of the harshest places on earth, like desserts and arctic areas. Okay, I’m not switching to seal fat and herbs but my point is that it’s possible for humans to thrive on nothing else.
10. The food industry is worth billions of dollars. Lots of people have a vested interest in convincing you to buy their particular version of ‘nutrition’. Do your own research. Experiment with your own body. Figure out what works for you. It might be that you’ll be better without dairy, or gluten or you might be one of those people that feels best on the FODMAP diet, or the paleo diet. For me, ‘diet’ should be a word we use to describe how we eat all of the time, not a word used to describe a temporary restrictive eating plan designed to make us lose weight.
11. I have managed to figure out which foods make me feel satisfied and which foods help me to avoid bloating and digestive problems. I love my A2 dairy and although I’ve reduced gluten (because I’m eating a lot less of those foods that contain it) I don’t have any trouble digesting it. I love whole grains because they’re a great source of B vitamins and I love legumes as a meat free protein. I don’t understand how some diets can demonise grain and then recommend seeds because, as a gardener, I know that grains are….well, seeds!
This is what works for me. Everyone needs to go through the process of figuring out what works for them.
I like the idea that somewhere in my DNA is the code for your the best my body can be. I just need to feed myself properly to get back there.
My approach has been moderate. If it can’t hurt and it might help I’ve included it. We’ve always loved healthy, organic food and now there’s an added emphasis on making sure we include hemp seed, tumeric, mushrooms, coconut oil, probiotic drinking yoghurt, water cress, walnuts, kale, parsley, broccoli, berries and bananas. I have read research that says organic food is no better for me but I think they missed the point. The appeal for me is what’s NOT in it. I have deliberately allowed myself to be pumped full of toxic chemicals. It seems sensible to me that I should do everything I can not to add to that burden.
We’re eating grass fed, organic meat because it’s high in omega 3, and ‘ordinary’ meat isn’t because the cattle have been fed on grain. This is a really important difference because getting the balance of omega 3, 6 and 9 right is important in preventing and fighting cancer.
The internet is full of claims about the ‘anti-cancer’ properties of certain foods. There’s some great academic research mixed in with some ridiculous claims and some vested interests; Why do people assume that pharmaceutical companies will mislead them but companies selling supplements won’t? I take vitamin D on any day that I haven’t been able to get 15 minutes of sun on my skin. I generally avoid supplements. I know that if I’m eating well I shouldn’t need them and I’m concerned that some supplements can throw my system completely out of whack. It’s a bit like fertiliser and plants. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing. I also worry about where some of these supplements come from and how they are made. Food will always be my first choice.
What I’m not doing is putting my body through the additional stress of any of the radical ‘anti cancer’ diets that are touted. I don’t plan on restricting my meals to fat and meat in order to ‘go ketogenic’ and I don’t plan on ingesting large quantities of carb soda with molasses in order to ‘alkalise’ my body. I won’t be fasting for days at a time or restricting my eating to just one or two foods. Right now my body needs nourishing with good, healthy food and some relaxation about the occasional treat. What I don’t need is to wage war on my body with food.
A lot of these diets have noisy supporters. I support everyone’s right to do what they feel is best for them in the face of a cancer diagnosis. I’d need to see more convincing evidence that any of these extreme diets had an impact before I’d put my poor, recovering body through any of this torture.
I have seen evidence of the benefits of eating less and fasting. New Scientist has had a series of articles on how reducing the amount you eat and lengthening the time between your last meal and breakfast can have measurable health benefits, but ‘eating less’ does not mean starving yourself and the gap between meals means cutting out night time snacks and not rushing to have breakfast, rather than spending days drinking lemon juice. I haven’t measured my food intake but I have noticed that by improving the quality of my food I’m naturally eating less. I just don’t feel hungry.
My usual pattern is to have coffee when I get up but to put breakfast off until about 10.00am, when I feel like eating. I’ll have something light and nourishing around 2.00pm or 3.00pm (if I’m not meeting a girlfriend for lunch) and this often includes a piece of fruit and lots of leafy greens. Yes, I have discovered the benefits of the green smoothie. Dinner tends to be my biggest meal of the day because this is when my husband and I get to sit down together.
I’m eating mindfully, taking time to really enjoy what I’m eating and to appreciate where it’s come from. I’m trying (not always succeeding) to avoid doing anything else while I’m eating. Distracted eating usually means over-eating. I’m gradually increasing my physical activity and although I’m still tired, I’m slowly regaining my strength. I’ve also given up all but the very occasional alcoholic drink. That stuff is poison.
I finished treatment at the beginning of April and it’s almost the end of May. I’m back in my size 12 jeans. I’m eating well and feeling great. People tell me I look fitter and younger that I did before treatment. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way for that to happen to everyone that goes through this?
So, that’s my brain dump on nutrition. I hope you find it interesting and that it gets you thinking about what you put in your body. I don’t know if it’s possible to eat cancer to death but it’s certainly possible to eat ourselves well, and why wouldn’t we want to be as healthy as it’s possible to be?
PS: I woke up this morning and wanted to add this last piece of advice: If your gut isn’t healthy you won’t be able to process food properly and you’ll always be hungry. Chemotherapy and medications (especially antibiotics) strip our bodies of the healthy bacteria that should populate our gut. I use Babushka kefir drinking yoghurt to repopulate my gut and get rid of nausea, bloating and poor digestion. You can also use naturally fermented vegetables, natural yoghurt or probiotic supplements. Flavoured yoghurt is full of sugar so I don’t eat it.
It still fascinates me that when I ‘fought’ my weight I had no success and when I let go and just started loving my body everything somehow fell into place and the weight came off, slowly and steadily, without me needing to ‘go on a diet’. All of the changes I have made are permanent. My body is still dropping weight but more slowly than before. I know that I’ll reach a kind of equilibrium in the next few months and that whatever I weigh when I get there will be my ‘correct’ weight.