We know: when you’re undergoing cancer treatments, very little tastes good. In fact, if the inside of your mouth generally tastes like a combination of aluminum foil mixed with an ashtray, you’d hardly be alone. But the truth is, you still gotta eat—and sticking to a good diet full of foods that can help your body is paramount right now. Treats are good, too, don’t get us wrong—mental health is a big component of health—but when your brain and your body are already under a lot of stress, incorporating some particular nutrients into your diet can go a long way.
“There’s not one food or food group that is going to help you prevent or fight cancer,” explains Jennifer Smith, Breast Cancer Dietitian at Joy, Energy, Nutrition. “We need a variety of foods and a rainbow of colors working together to give us the maximum benefit for good health.”
Tea is delicious, it can be a great way to quell nausea, and it’s super good for you—which is why Smith is a huge fan of trying out different teas and teasans, which are infusions of anything other than the actual tea leaf. Some of her favorites include dandelion tea (for detoxification), peppermint and ginger tea (both of which are great to help with nausea related to cancer therapy treatments), or teas that are filled with antioxidants that may be beneficial in fighting and preventing cancer.
Polyphenols, the major active compound found in green, black, and oolong tea, have been shown to have a whole host of benefits—including fighting cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease—with green tea coming out on top as the best option for gaining maximum health benefits.
2. Green leafy vegetables
Yup, just like mom said, it’s important to eat your vegetables—especially when you’re undergoing cancer treatments. “Focus on vegetables from the cruciferous family,” Smith says. “Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and kale.”
Cruciferous veggies might actually be correlated with a reduced risk of certain types of cancers, as well, according to a 2018 review. And even better, some studies suggest Indole-3-carbinol (I3C)—a compound found in cruciferous vegetables—might actually suppress the spread of different tumor cells in various types of cancers.
3. Pre- and probiotics
“A healthy gut equals a healthy body and a stronger immune system,” Smith says. “Probiotics include plain yogurt, fermented veggies like sauerkraut and kimchi, or fermented soy like miso and tempeh. Prebiotic foods such as dandelion greens are also great for supporting liver and detoxification. Prebiotic foods include jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, apples, and flaxseeds.”
Scientists are still learning about the gut microbiome and the role it plays in our overall health, but we do know that it’s not just related to digestion, as we’d previously thought. In fact, the gut plays an important role in your metabolism, immune system, and potentially even your mental health—a lot of doctors have started referring to the gut as the “second brain”—meaning taking care of your gut health is a must.
Mushrooms are another fantastic source of antioxidants, and—while the hype around mushrooms as medicinal superfoods might not be scientifically proven—their nutritional benefit is well-known. Mushrooms are rich in copper, potassium, and B vitamins like folate and niacin, all of which are important nutrients you should be incorporating into your diet on a daily basis.
5. Herbs and spices
We tend to think about herbs, spices, and other seasonings as adding flavor more than nutritional benefits, but as it turns out, the tastiest ingredients in our kitchens can actually be great for your health, too.
“Herbs and spices contain powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals to support your fight against cancer and against toxic cancer treatments,” says Smith. Her recommendations? Try adding more garlic, ginger, parsley, lemon zest, and turmeric (coupled with black pepper, which majorly boosts tumeric’s absorption) to your diet.
6. Omega-3 fatty acids
There’s a reason why the Mediterranean diet is widely considered to be one of the healthiest diets in the world, and omega-3 fatty acids are definitely part of it. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds, have been shown to help slow down the spread (and survival) of cancer cells in the body. Plus, these superfoods are shown to promote your health in more ways than one—including protecting your heart and brain.
7. Bright, colorful vegetables
When it comes to vegetables, really, the key is variety. Smith recommends adding vegetables rich in lycopene, which include carrots, beets, and tomatoes, as well as those high in beta-carotene—the pigment that makes pumpkins and carrots orange. These vegetables are both rich in antioxidants, meaning they help protect the body from free radicals and fight inflammation—while being flavorful as well.
The truth is, the best foods to eat while you’re undergoing cancer treatments are the ones you can get down and keep down. But if you have the emotional capacity to think about what foods can benefit your body most during this incredibly challenging time, these are some of the best bets available. But no matter what food choices you make right now, the most important thing is that you take a little time out for self-care.