Diet and Breast Cancer: Interview with Cookbook Author Jeanne Besser

Maintaining a balanced diet and healthy weight is a controllable factor that may lower the risk of breast cancer and other health conditions, such as heart disease. A healthy diet provides your body with nutrients to keep your strength up while undergoing treatment for breast cancer and can manage the side effects of treatment. National Cancer Institute guidelines for breast cancer prevention include:

  • Increase intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Decrease fat intake to less than 30 percent of calories
  • Minimize intake of cured, pickled and smoked foods
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight
  • Alcohol consumption should be done in moderation, if at all

This week, BBN had the opportunity to speak with the best-selling cookbook author, Jeanne Besser. Jeanne Besser is a former food columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and author of numerous cookbooks, including the American Cancer Society’s New Healthy Eating Cookbook, The Great American Eat-Right Cookbook, and What to Eat During Cancer Treatment. Among her other cookbooks are The 5:30 Challenge: 5 Ingredients, Dinner on the Table; The First Book of Baking; and Working Mom’s Fast & Easy One-Pot Cooking. She is also the co-author of Tell Me the Truth, Doctor: Easy-To-Understand Answers to Your Most Confusing and Critical Health Questions. With contribution from the American Cancer Society experts, Besser’s cookbooks offer scientifically-based information on the importance of diet, exercise, and portion control.

Do you believe in “superfoods,” or is cancer prevention more about a balanced diet?

There is a misconception that miracle foods exist. General healthy eating—more fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains and less preservatives and additives—is the best thing for your body. The Healthy Eating Cookbook includes an array of accessible recipes and guidance on serving sizes and nutritional information. You should avoid red and processed meats like bacon and sausage. Portion control and understanding normal portion sizing is critical for a healthy diet. It is also important for people to have a better relationship with food so that it does not become a reward or punishment. Foods should not be vilified. For people who are overweight, it becomes a constant battle against “bad food,” which leads to excessive eating of “non-fat cookies.” Instead, everything should be in moderation.

Do you have any advice on ways to maintain a healthy diet while balancing a busy schedule?

Meal prepping for the week is a great way to create healthy options while on the go. Soups and stews are easy to freeze for future meals. Try prepping your vegetables for the week—chop onions and cut up sides to minimize dinner prep times. So much of healthy eating is having nutritious options in the fridge to grab when you are rushed and hungry. Cut fruit or carrots with hummus are a much better alternative to chips. Boiled eggs are easy snacks and a great source of protein. The 5:30 Challenge offers a different way of looking at cooking—recipes made from 5 easy-to-remember ingredients that take 30 minutes to prepare. While it may seem hard to balance that some things take more time, such as buying versus making salad dressing, making something yourself allows you to control factors like salt and fat content.

What are low-cost changes people can make while shopping for groceries, if they cannot afford or do not have access to more expensive organic options?

 Everyone has different means and economic situations. The most important thing for prevention and nutrition is to incorporate as many real foods as possible. Beans, eggs, and peanut butter are inexpensive and great sources of protein. Any dark leafy green vegetable—broccoli, kale, spinach—are all great options, so you can look for whatever is on sale that week. Small incremental changes you can make include switching from white to brown rice for more fiber or swapping white potatoes for sweet potatoes. Other cost-effective options include buying groceries in groups or doing group meals, where one family makes a meal each night. Becoming more in touch with what you are eating can help you shop smarter and have less wasted food and money.

Do you have any advice specifically for patients undergoing breast cancer treatment?

While writing What to Eat During Cancer Treatment, I worked directly with a nutritional oncologist to ensure that the book included information that was most valuable to her patients. The recipes address common side effects associated with cancer treatments including; nausea, diarrhea, constipation, unintentional weight loss, sore mouth or throat, taste changes and trouble swallowing. It is helpful to remember that during treatment, your appetite can change dramatically—there is a chapter in the cookbook that specifically addresses taste alteration. You may also face digestive issues as a side effect of some treatments, so it may be helpful to keep your meals on the bland side until you see how you personally take to different treatments.

If you are receiving treatment at a cancer center, ask if there is an on-site nutritionist or dietitian. It is important to advocate for yourself and ask what services are available. The book I co-wrote with my husband, Tell Me the Truth Doctor, offers great advice and easy-to-understand answers for these types of questions and concerns. If you are not feeling well or feel uncomfortable asking these questions yourself, consider bringing a family member or friend who can advocate on your behalf.

Comfort foods, such as soups or roast chickens, are great options that offer adaptable recipes for family members who are not suffering from certain side effects. While undergoing treatment, it is crucial to take care of yourself and do what makes you feel good. Let yourself feel comfort. Accept how you are feeling and listen to your body. It is important to fuel your body with sufficient nutrients, but if you are craving ice cream or want breakfast for dinner, then go ahead and do what it takes to make yourself feel better. There are no right or wrong choices.

Click on the in-text links to purchase Jeanne Besser’s books. Remember to support the Bridge Breast Network with your Amazon purchases at no extra cost through Amazon Smile.

Resources

“American Cancer Society Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity.” American Cancer Society, June 9, 2020. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/acs-guidelines-nutrition-physical-activity-cancer-prevention/guidelines.html.

Brown, Ken. “Nutrition for Breast Cancer Patients and Survivors: Johns Hopkins Breast Center,” January 9, 2017. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/breast_center/treatments_services/nutrition.html.

“Diet and Breast Cancer.” Susan G. Komen®, February 13, 2020. https://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/BreastCancerAndDiet.html.

“Nutrition.” Breastcancer.org, June 22, 2019. https://www.breastcancer.org/tips/nutrition.