Adopting a whole food, plant-based way of eating is relentless and time consuming. I always thought I was living a healthy-eating lifestyle, and for as long as I can remember, embraced a 80:20 rule towards what I ingested into my body: 80% healthy foods balanced against 20% naughty food. However, ever since my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment last year, my concept of healthy eating has changed drastically and pretty much everything I ingest is whole food, plant-based with a splattering of animal protein. My nutrition discourse is now a ‘before cancer’ and ‘after cancer’ dialog with myself and others.
Before cancer I considered myself nutritionally aware and made a conscious effort to eat healthily, with a smattering of unhealthy treats along the way. All in moderation was my motto. Well who knows why breast cancer showed up. As it wasn’t the genetic type of breast cancer, the only other explanation is environmental and/or psychological. For me, part of the environmental side of the equation is the type of food, drink and drugs we ingest into our body. Which meant no more moderation with regards to alcohol (yes, alcohol is a drug), processed foods and refined sugar. After researching ways to improve my life expectancy and reduce the likelihood of the breast cancer returning without taking Tamoxofin, I changed my attitude and approach to how I nourish my body.
Before cancer I would happily eat dairy, red meat, refined sugar and drink alcohol. That changed in an instance once I discovered the potential impact of eating these type of foods on breast cancer forming and reoccurring. For breakfast I used to love my morning dairy fix; drinking a few cups of tea with cows milk, eating morning cereal and oats with full fat cows milk, lathering loads of butter on toast with vegemite, or a having few dollops of Greek yoghurt with fresh fruit. My mid-morning snack would be a small 160g tub of yoghurt and a cup of tea. For lunch my salads would always include animal protein of either chicken, beef, cheese or eggs. My go-to mid-afternoon snack would be herbal tea with either a ‘healthy’ muesli bar or bar of chocolate, both loaded with sugar. For dinner my steamed vegetables would be accompanied by a nice juicy piece of fillet steak, lamb chops, chicken or salmon.
Some of my favourite unhealthy indulgences were literally inhaling a large bag of fat laden crips or sugary maltesers whilst reading a book, demolishing cheese and crackers whilst enjoying a glass of wine, polishing off a small tub of ice-cream while watching TV. When I in my teens and early twenties I wouldn’t think twice about eating take-away junk food and drinking copious amounts of alcohol; and more recently when was living in the United Kingdom, I wouldn’t think twice about buying Marks & Spencer ready meals on a regular basis and drinking three to four cups of coffee a day.
After cancer I gave up dairy, alcohol, processed foods and refined sugar. Such a dramatic nutritional change requires little motivation when your long term survival rate depends on staying healthy and cancer free. Nourishing my body with whole food, plant-based and preservative free food every day requires a relentless routine of sourcing and preparing food from scratch. My daily eating routine is pretty much a full-time occupation and generally follows this pattern: prepare morning juice – prepare almond milk (every three days) – prepare breakfast – wash a mountain of dishes – prepare lunch – wash more dishes – prepare dinner – wash even more dishes. The cycle starts again the next morning, ground hog day style. Interspersed throughout the week is more food preparation. Cooking from scratch things like nut butters, nut milk, vegetable stock, hummus.
Now I eat loads more fresh, and were possible organic vegetables, salads, fruit, nuts, lentils, chickpeas, beans, quinoa, low GI brown rice, oats. I use loads more spices and herbs in my cooking than ever before. A few favourites on repeat are cumin, turmeric, ginger, paprika, chili, coriander, cardamon, parsley, mint, basil, thyme. Post-cancer I developed a love of cooking, focusing mainly on preparing delicious vegan and vegetarian dishes, and ensuring I have adequate sources of plant protein. The less red meat I eat, the less my body craves. So much so that now when shopping in the supermarket, I feel slightly ill purchasing chicken or red meat for dinner.
My nutrition/diet isn’t completely sugar free as I incorporate a small amount of ‘natural’ sugar in my diet – mainly sourced from fresh fruit, dates, coconut, cacao and honey. I avoid refined sugar completely and using ‘natural sweeteners’ like stevia, maple syrup, maca powder, coconut sugar and the like as they are still forms of sugar. Since giving up refined sugar and things like chocolate and ice-cream, and the less ‘natural’ sugar I eat, the less I can tolerate even ‘refined sugar free’ vegan desserts, cakes and slices. Also I never really drank soft drinks or sodas or store bought juices, so eliminating these sugary drinks completely from my diet was easy.
The thought of giving up cows milk with my morning cup of tea was horrifying as I disliked drinking black tea without this creamy white liquid. That is until I had an epiphany of making my own almond milk. Why not just head to the supermarket, save yourself the hassle and buy almond milk you might ask? Well initially I did just that, and after the few seconds it took to locate and read the ingredient label, I quickly decided that store bought almond milk wasn’t for me. And when researching homemade almond milk recipes online, most recipes stated that homemade almond milk would only last three to four days in the fridge. So if homemade almond milk lasts only three days, what ingredients are added to the supermarket almond milk to make it last for weeks? Plus, supermarket almond milk is watery and tasteless when compared to the deliciously creamy homemade almond milk.
Other Things I Have Discovered
- Nutritional yeast flakes can be used as a cheese substitute.
- Homemade nut butter is a fantastic dairy butter substitute.
- Homemade hummus is easy, tastes amazing and is preservative free.
- Eating three solid meals a day with no snacking in between helps with insulin resistance, as constantly snacking throughout the day causes your insulin levels to spike.
- Turmeric has amazing anti inflammatory properties, and black pepper activates turmeric by x1000.
- Avocado adds a creamy texture to both green and fruit smoothies.
Foods & Drinks I Stopped Ingesting:
- Dairy – no cows milk, yoghurt, cheese, butter, ice-cream, sour cream etc. Animal milk was meant for baby animals and contains growth hormones. My breast cancer was hormonal (oestrogen and progesterone positive), so removing any foods that contain growth hormones was a no-brainer for me.
- Refined sugar – no white or raw sugar.
- Processed food – no junk food, no bottled sauces, no packet crisps, etc. Basically I now skip past 98% of the products on supermarket shelves and head straight for the fresh produce section.
- Processed meats – no ham, salami etc because of the carcinogenic nitrates contained in these foods. However, I will confess to having bacon with brunch as an occasional treat a few times a year.
- Coffee – no coffee as coffee is acidic and I need to keep my body alkaline as much as possible.
- Alcohol – no alcohol period. Alcohol is poison and a leading cause of cancer.
Giving up all of these has been easy for me, with cancer being the greatest motivator of all. Staying healthy through whole food, plant based nutrition is pretty much a relentless full-time occupation. However, I wouldn’t have it any other way if it means nourishing my body with amazingly healthy food, staying alive and cancer free. At forty-nine, I feel the healthiest I have been in my whole entire adult life.
*this is what works for me as a lifestyle choice and relates to my situation and circumstance, and therefore I am not advocating any specific diet for others to follow.
Mum’s Not Having Chemo by Laura Bond (2013). Chapter 8 ‘There’s Something About Dairy’
The China Study (2016) by T. Colin Cambell
How Not To Die (2018) by Michael Greger
Salt, Sugar, Fat (2013) by Michael Moss
For more references, see my Life After Cancer: Diet & Optimism blog post