Ask the Nutritionist
Q: My mother has breast cancer and I have been trying to come up with a weekly diet plan for her. Could you send me an idea of what I should be feeding her daily?
RBB, Roseville, California
A: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins are all highly recommended components of a diet for all cancer survivors. Please refer to Diet After Reconstructive Mastectomy for more information on an optimal diet for someone with breast cancer.
Soy products can be a concern for many breast cancer patients. Foods that come from soybeans are a great source of protein, but soy also contains isoflavones, which exert a weak estrogen-like effect on the body.
Isoflavones are plant-based nutrients and can be referred to as a source of phytoestrogens. Isoflavones have been found to have a protective effect on the development of certain types of cancer, including prostate, breast, colon, and bladder cancer.
However, there are controversies surrounding consumption of soy foods after the diagnosis of Estrogen Receptor Positive breast cancer. It is still unknown whether or not excessive consumption of soy isoflavones may fuel the growth of estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells.
Current research suggests that it is prudent for women to avoid soy isoflavone supplements and highly concentrated foods, such as foods made with textured vegetable protein and soy protein isolate found in many protein powders and nutrition bars, because of the high concentration of isoflavones.
However, whole soy foods, like soymilk, edamame, and tofu, may still be consumed in moderation several times per week. Foods with soy in the name that do not have any phytoestrogen activity and are safe to eat include: soybean oil, soy sauce, and foods made with soy lecithin.
Preliminary research suggests that preventing vitamin D deficiency may also be important for cancer prevention and survivorship as well as for bone health. Up to 800–1,000 IU of vitamin D supplementation per day is safe and may help prevent deficiency and provide an important nutrient for bone health. Unfortunately, it is difficult for those who live in northern regions of the country to obtain an adequate amount of vitamin D through diet alone.
Vitamin D rich foods are healthy in their own right and offer many important nutrients. Some good food sources of vitamin D are: one cup of milk or fortified soy/rice beverages (100 IU), 3 oz. of canned light tuna (200 IU), 3 oz. of salmon (425 IU), 3 oz. of pink salmon (530 IU), and 3 oz. of canned sardines (250 IU). Some other excellent sources of vitamin D include one tablespoon of cod liver oil (1,360 IU) and 3 oz. of herring (1,384 IU).
If your mother is not a fish person, have her try packets of Quaker Nutrition for Women Oats, which offers 140 IU of vitamin D.
The skin is often able to make enough vitamin D in the months between April and October in the northeast. For your mother, 15-20 minutes of sun exposure, without sunscreen on, between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. (the best exposure is at mid-day) can cause the skin to synthesize enough vitamin D for the body. Remember, however, that there are risks associated with too much sun exposure, so keep your mother's time in the sunlight limited to 15-20 minutes. If your mother is undergoing chemotherapy or is photosensitive for other reasons, she may need to wear sunscreen at all times and rely on supplements for Vitamin D instead.
Depending on the treatment that your mother is receiving, she may be able to handle some foods better than others. However, a well-balanced diet with protein, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats is the recommended diet for someone diagnosed with breast cancer.
Please check out our recipe archive for great ideas for healthy meals and cancer-related health tips associated with each recipe.
It is also important that your mother maintain a healthy weight. Research shoes that in women who are overweight, a moderate weight loss (5-10% of her current weight) can reduce risk for breast cancer recurrence.
Serving your mother a well-balanced diet, with protein, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, in amounts to maintain a healthy weight, is the best thing you can do for her optimal health.