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Eating After a Cancer Diagnosis: Does What You Eat Really Matter?

June 2016 Vol 2 No 3
Ashley Harris, MS, RD, CSO
Founder and CEO Fresh Food Fresh Perspective, LLC

With the number of cancer survivors growing every day, the question of what to eat after a cancer diagnosis is quickly becoming a hot topic. Some survivors believe it is of little importance: they have already been through cancer, so how could changing their diet help? Others feel it is vital for health and prevention of cancer recurrence (returning). What does the science say?

As a result of increased research on cancer survivors, we now know that diet and exercise play a very important role after a cancer diagnosis. Both can have a significant impact on cancer as well as on overall health and survivorship.

Following a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise, can reduce the risk for cancer recurrence (or a second primary cancer) and reduces the risk for other life-threatening chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes.

Studies have shown that overall, cancer survivors are eating less healthy than the general population.1 But the good news is, it is not too late to make a change! We now know that regardless of what your diet was before a cancer diagnosis, what you eat after can have a profound impact on your health.

A study looking at the eating habits of women after a breast cancer diagnosis showed that those who consumed a better-quality diet (rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats) had a 60% lower risk of dying from any cause and an 88% reduced risk of dying from breast cancer compared with those who had a poor-quality diet (heavy in saturated fats, refined grains, and sugars).2

In addition, those who had good-quality diets and got regular exercise had an 89% lower risk of dying from any cause and a 91% reduced risk of dying from breast cancer compared with women who were sedentary and had poor-quality diets.2

Another study looking at cancer survivors showed that following the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommendations for cancer prevention (see Recommendations for Cancer Prevention below) significantly reduced the risk for death.3 The risk was cut by one-third for survivors following 6 or more recommendations compared with those following 4 or less. Following the recommendation for a plant-based diet had the biggest impact on health.3

Plant-Based Diet

A plant-based diet does not have to be vegetarian; it simply means consuming mostly plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts or seeds, beans or legumes, and even coffee, tea, and dark chocolate!

A good rule of thumb is to aim to fill 2/3 or more of your plate with plant foods and 1/3 or less with healthy animal proteins.

AICR Recommendations for Cancer Prevention

  1. Stay as lean as possible, without becoming underweight
  2. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes a day
  3. Avoid consuming sugary drinks
  4. Eat a plant-based diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans: consume relatively high amounts of daily dietary fiber (25 grams or more)
  5. Limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat (ham, cold cuts, bacon, sausage)
  6. Limit alcohol consumption to 1 drink a day for women, 2 drinks a day for men
  7. Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt (less than 1,500 milligrams a day)

8 Tips for a Plant-Based Diet

1. Start the day right:

Go with fruits and veggies at breakfast! Try a fruit-filled smoothie or vegetable-filled omelet

2. Convert your favorite dishes:

Turn your favorite meat recipes into veggie dishes; get creative, or look online for ways to make your favorite meals meat-free (eg, vegetable lasagna)

3. Create a plant-based pantry list:

Many plant-based foods, such as beans and whole grains, are shelf-stable, convenient, and economical; keep them on hand so you can always whip up a meat-free meal without having to go to the grocery store

4. Join the “Meatless Monday” bandwagon:

Skipping meat 1 day a week is a great way to introduce new vegetarian recipes into your diet. Look online for Meatless Monday ideas or vegetarian recipe ideas!

5. Shop for plants first:

Instead of planning your menu around meat, plan it around plant foods and add the meat as a flavor enhancer

6. Try ethnic flair:

Some cultures know how to do vegetarian meals right; look for recipes that are packed with flavor from herbs and spices, so you don’t miss the meat!

7. Dust off your slow-cooker:

Just throw in veggies, herbs, broth, canned tomatoes, whole grains, and dried beans—switch the dial to on, and have a warm, aromatic, meat-free dinner the second you walk in the door

8. Keep it simple:

Not every meal has to involve cookbooks and cutting boards; a meatless meal can be as simple as:

  • bean burritos
  • vegetarian chili
  • peanut butter sandwich
  • veggie stir-fry
  • hummus & pita sandwich


  1. Zhang FF, Liu S, John EM, et al. Diet quality of cancer survivors and noncancer individuals: results from a national survey. Cancer. 2015;121(23):4212-4221.
  2. George SM, Irwin ML, Smith AW, et al. Postdiagnosis diet quality, the combination of diet quality and recreational physical activity, and prognosis after early-stage breast cancer. Cancer Causes Control. 2011;22(4):589-598.
  3. American Institute for Cancer Research. Following AICR recommendations may help survivors live longer, be healthier. AICR’s Cancer Research Update. May 29, 2013.

Patient Resources

Meatless Monday
American Institute for Cancer Research
The New American Plate Cookbook–AICR
The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, by Rebecca Katz

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