Dietary Guidelines for Maintaining Your Health after Cancer

Wednesday, November 8, 2006 - 12:46pm

By Dena McDowell, MS, RD

Completing cancer treatment is a milestone. To rebuild your health and lay the foundations for a healthy life in the future, you must follow a healthy diet. Moreover, research demonstrates that a well balanced diet may reduce the risk of a relapse. The following healthy eating and lifestyle guidelines are adapted from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the federal government's Healthy People 2010 Report.

Your diet after cancer treatment

Diet is an integral part of maintaining your health and preventing recurrence. Following the new Food Guide Pyramid and these simple steps will help you reach your health and dietary goals.

  • Choose a variety of foods from all the food groups. The more colorful your diet, the healthier it is. At meal times, try to ensure you have at least 3 different colors on your plate. For example, a colorful healthy dinner may include 1 cup of a green or yellow vegetable, a ½ cup of brown rice, 3 ounces of salmon and a ½ cup of berries. See Eat A Rainbow, Part 1 (Red), Part 2 (Green), Part 3 (Yellow/Orange) and Part 4 (Blue/Purple) for more information on healthy eating through food color.
  • Eat at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day. This is the minimum requirement. To meet it, you should eat at least 1 serving of fruit at breakfast, a serving of fruit and vegetable at lunch and dinner, plus a snack that is either fruit- or vegetable-based. Include citrus fruits and dark-green and deep-yellow vegetables in your diet. Serving sizes may surprise you. Look at the new Food Guide Pyramid to learn about them.
  • Increase the high-fiber foods in your diet. These foods can include whole-grain breads and cereals. Look for foods that have at least 2 grams of fiber or more per serving. A daily goal of 25-35 grams of fiber is recommended.
  • Decrease the fat in your meals. To accomplish this goal, choose a low-fat cooking method like baking or broiling. It is also very important to limit your intake of saturated fats and trans-fats. Baked goods, chips, crackers, French fries, and meats contain these types of unhealthy fats. Instead, choose nuts, avocados, and oils to increase your intake of healthy unsaturated fats.
  • Substitute legumes (starchy beans, peas, lentils) for meat. Try to do this at least 1-2 times per week. Make a vegetarian chili instead of regular chili for a nice taste surprise. Check online recipe sites for easy and tasty vegetarian entrees.
  • Choose low-fat milk and dairy products. Aim for 2-3 servings of dairy a day. Dairy is an important source of calcium and vitamin D, which are important to bone health. Try low-fat yogurt, milk, cheese or ice cream to meet your daily quota.
  • Eat salt-cured, smoked and pickled foods less often. These foods contain nitrates, which may increase the risk of certain cancers.
  • Limit alcohol intake. The recommended daily serving is 1 glass for women and 2 glasses for men. If you drink alcohol, choose dark beers and wines which are the healthiest choices because they contain phytochemicals called tannins. Tannins help protect against cancer cell development and heart disease. If you do not drink alcohol, do not start.
  • Consider losing weight. If you are overweight, reduce the fat in your diet, consume more fruits and vegetables, and exercise more.
  • Enlist the help of a registered dietitian. A dietitian can create a personalized, nutritious, balanced eating plan that fits your current needs.
  • Become more physically active. Choose activities that you enjoy and to do them 30-60 minutes every day. If this seems daunting, break up activities into 10 minute increments. Any physical activity counts towards this goal. Be creative and make it fun!
  • Use the Food Guide Pyramid to create a well-balanced meal plan. Use the food calculator at to find a meal plan specific to your body's needs.