This is the fourth, and final, in our series to address frequently asked questions about diet and nutrition after cancer diagnosis. The first article covered how to manage cancer- or treatment-related weight loss. The second focused on common side-effects and ways to address them through food. The third discussed eating for cancer survivorship. This final blog will zero in on eating for weight loss.
Weight plays a significant role in cancer. We know that having overweight or obesity is a risk factor for developing several types of cancer (e.g., head and neck, digestive, post-menopausal breast cancer). Evidence continues to mount that having overweight or obesity can increase likelihood of cancer reoccurrence and may lower survival rates in some cases. Weight loss and malnutrition are also common during the treatment of many cancers, due to an increase in the body’s calorie and protein needs, lack of appetite, and symptoms that make eating difficult (e.g., mouth sores, digestive issues). Other cancers, and their treatment, are associated with weight gain – this scenario is addressed by the frequently asked questions below.
Did I give myself cancer by carrying excess weight? The development of cancer is very complicated and based on inter-connectivity between genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors and/or exposures. While having overweight or obesity is associated with an increased risk of developing some cancers, it does not guarantee it – just as eating fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk of developing cancer, but high consumption does not mean you will never develop cancer, nor does low intake guarantee that you will. The good news is that it’s never too early or too late to manage weight and eat more healthfully! Take the American Institute of Cancer HealthCheck quiz to understand what areas you can most improve. For free support, participate in the Healthy10 Challenge!
Can/should I try to lose weight during cancer treatment? The short answer is maybe. Your physician and dietitian will evaluate you, individually, to understand whether you are a candidate for deliberately (and carefully) losing weight while undergoing treatment. If so, they can instruct you on how to safely do so and will monitor to make sure that you are not becoming malnourished, and that treatment is not being affected. Physical activity is encouraged before, during, and after treatment, as long as you do not have other health complications that make it unsafe to do so. Listen to your body!
What are the keys to achieving, and maintaining, a healthy weight? The best way to reach, and stay, at a healthy weight, is a combination of nutrient-dense eating and physical activity. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Manage calories by choosing healthy options from all five food groups. Get your MyPlate Plan and keep a food journal to monitor what you are eating. Watch food portions, mindless eating, and snacking. Tell family and friends your goals so that they can be supportive.
Find the activities you most enjoy and mix them up. Work in a combination of cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility exercises. If you feel able, be physically activity first thing in the morning before you become distracted by other responsibilities and activities. Get a workout buddy to keep you accountable and make it fun!
Finally, it’s important to understand that “going on a diet” is not the way to long-term weight management, rather it’s a mindset that predisposes you to look forward to “going off the diet” and gaining weight back. Instead, continually make small changes that add up to healthy habits over time. Most importantly, if you have overweight or obesity, any weight loss and maintenance is likely to bring health benefits, so think of it as a marathon rather than a sprint.
By: Shelley Maniscalco, Registered Dietitian