Healthy Eating to Prevent Breast Cancer: Dr. Internet Doesn’t Have the Answers


“It’s not what we don’t know about diet that most threatens our health; it’s the constant, wild misinterpretations of what we do know.”
– South African Nutrition Congress, 2016

I saw this quote flash by on Twitter recently and quickly copied it. I was in the midst of putting together a talk for breast cancer survivors as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I knew this would be useful.

Because if there’s anything that gets us searching the Internet, it’s the question about what we can do when we’re facing a health problem.

Unfortunately, the Internet is the worst place to search for healthy eating advice, precisely because of wild misinterpretations about the science of eating well.

I know — it’s a tad ironic you’re reading this on the Internet. But what I’m about to say isn’t wild, unless you consider time-tested wisdom wild. With all the “breaking news” out there, sometimes we do. But more often, it’s considered boring. I’m trying hard not to make this so.

But let me know because this post gives you a sneak preview of what I’ll be addressing in my talk. I still have time to change it!

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Clearing Up Confusion

I was asked to speak about mindful eating, but to do that, I have to spend some time first clearing up misconceptions about healthy eating.

The fact is that mindful eating is one of the most sustainable ways to help yourself meet your individual needs when it comes to food. That’s because we’re born with internal guidance systems that were designed to guide us in eating for well-being.

The trouble is, all the advice that’s floating around about how to eat well confuses things. The result: we flounder about, trying this and that, and often end up defeated as we find we just can’t follow the latest diet or healthy eating scheme.

So in this post, I want to clear up a few of the wild misinterpretations about what we know about healthy eating.

What Healthy Eating Isn’t

  • Counting calories. I know there’s concern that our weight affects our cancer risk. But the bald fact is that no one knows any guaranteed way to help you lose weight. In fact, diets and the like cause people to gain weight. That doesn’t mean that people can’t lose weight if weight loss is part of becoming healthier for them. But the weight loss is a natural process that is an outcome of what else they are doing to support their health. If it’s the goal – if it’s intentional weight loss – again, research shows they’ll likely find themselves going in the opposite direction.

    As far as calories go, it’s important to realize that they are external information about how much to eat. And it’s not fine tuned for your body. Foods vary in their calorie content. What you see on a label is just an estimate based on data from laboratory bomb calorimeters. Plus, we’re all different when it comes to how many calories we need and trying to stick to a prescribed number is a recipe for failure for most people. I’ll say it again: Diets make people gain weight. Keep that in mind.
  • The latest fad.  A fad is defined as “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities”.

    Avoiding carbs takes center stage these days as one of the top food fads. Yet carbohydrates are essential nutrients for the body. They are the gasoline that our bodies run on.

    Sure, we may need to look at the types of carbohydrates we eat – it’s true for everyone that we do better when the majority of our diet is composed of whole foods rather than highly processed ones – think potatoes vs. potato chips. And some of us may need to be a bit more aware about the quantity we eat because of issues like diabetes.

    But we don’t want to cut them out to an extremely low level unless we are doing it under the guidance of a qualified health professional who is working with us on a specific health issue. For example, there appears to be good evidence that low carb diets can help with epilepsy in some people.

    I know carbohydrates are under fire when it comes to cancer treatment. It is a controversial issue that I am not even close to being expert on so I will leave it except to say with certainty is that you don’t want to follow the advice of Dr. Internet. Seek out the considered advice of your health care team when you have questions like this. They know your individual health issues better than the Internet.

    That holds for any new nutrition “bad guy” that gets targeted in the future. Because the bad guys can change and if you chase after every new theory, you can end up pretty lost when it comes to feeding yourself.

    A quick mention about clean eating, which is also a very popular subject these days. It falls into the same category as carbohydrates with cancer because it is controversial, particularly as we understand that there are good questions about organic foods.

    What’s more, trying to eat “clean” according to stricter definitions may be a significant source of stress. Stress brings its own toxic effects that some argue are much greater than anything you can put in your mouth.

    If you’re going to use the term, I encourage you to define clean eating as eating in a way that supports your body’s ability to take care of itself.  Our bodies have systems that evolved to keep us alive in an environment that is naturally full of toxins.  So I vote for supporting the body to do its thing.
  • Good vs. Bad. Check out this link that lists the “5 Foods You Should Never Eat to see our version of the ad that often pops up on the right side of your screen when you’re surfing the web. As you can see, they’re not the typical foods you might think would appear under that title. That’s because we take a very different view of food at Green Mountain.

    Essentially, it’s that there is nothing inherently good or bad about foods – unless they’re spoiled. Sure, you can have poor diets because you eat too many foods of low nutrient value. Yet these foods can fit in moderation – see below for more on that.

    Further, good vs. bad tends to get co-opted into we’re good or bad when we eat a certain way. That sets us up for feeling terrible about ourselves if we eat in a way that we don’t believe is supportive. Indeed, food has become something of a moral issue in today’s society, but how we eat is not a moral issue at all – it’s an issue of self-care. It’s important to separate those two ideas.
  • Being perfect. When it comes to eating, being relaxed about it is queen.  If we get into a tizzy over it, we end up interfering with our ability to optimally digest, absorb and metabolize the healthy food we eat. That’s because stress sets up a cascade of hormones that send the body’s attention to managing danger, not processing your food.

    One big result can be gastrointestinal issues. Between 60 and 70 million people in the US struggle with those these days. That’s almost one quarter of Americans! Of course, it’s not all about worry over eating but for many of us, that plays a role.

What Healthy Eating Is

  • Pleasurable. Eating is one of the greatest pleasures of life and pleasure is good medicine.

    If we’re trying to force ourselves to eat what we don’t enjoy, we’ll end up creating stress and those hormones I just mentioned. To say nothing of overeating in the search for something that does satisfy us.

    But the other side of that is that pleasure relaxes us and enhances our ability to digest, absorb and metabolize our food.  So in order to get the most from the healthy foods we do eat, we want to enjoy the eating experience.

    An important sub point here is about compassion. A lot of us have negative tapes that start running in our heads when it comes to food. That links back to our beliefs about what foods we should or shouldn’t eat, and the guilt and worry that comes out of that. If health concerns are an issue, those tapes can get pretty loud.

    But when the tapes start running, say when we’re enjoying pizza with friends, they can seriously interfere with how we eat. Starting to listen to how we talk to ourselves around food and changing those negative tapes can actually help us begin to make more supportive choices.

    In the case of pizza, what we might find is that when we start to truly focus on enjoying the experience of eating pizza, we discover we are satisfied with less than if we ate it guiltily.
  • Health supportive. Healthy eating sustains us with a steady dose of energy and provides the nutrients our bodies need for health, thereby reducing our risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, some types of cancer and more.

    Even with all the back and forth we’ve seen in nutrition advice over the years, there are three principles that have been with us since the dawn of nutrition science – balance, variety and moderation.

    Balance is key because it helps support your appetite regulatory system that evolved to guide you in what, when and even how much to eat. When you eat enough of a balance of different types of foods – specifically grains/starchy vegetables, protein foods and fruits/vegetables that supply key nutrients — it stimulates the production of hormones that signal that you’ve had enough to eat to keep you satisfied for a few hours so you don’t have to spend your life thinking about and getting food.

    Perhaps the best example of this is the old weight loss diet strategy of eating lightly at meals – say a salad with a light dressing and just a little bit of protein food but no carbohydrates. If you eat enough vegetables in the salad, you might feel fairly full when you are finished.

    But how long does that salad stay with you? If you’re like most of us, you’ll be hungry again soon and on the search for something to eat.

    If it’s inconvenient to make or get yourself something healthful to eat, you may find yourself munching on foods that aren’t very supportive. Do that often enough and you’ll end up with a pretty poor nutrition intake. That’s one way that weight loss diet rules undermine us.

    Variety is key because it helps us get all the many nutrients our bodies evolved to thrive on.  Eating from the rainbow of colors that produce comes in is great advice in this regard.

    And moderation – well, that’s about eating according to our bodies’ needs, too, and it is something that mindful eating can also help us do by helping us tune into what our bodies are telling us via our appetite regulatory system. Just know that moderation doesn’t always mean small amounts. It’s the big picture that counts. You may sometimes eat more that what might be considered moderate – but when it’s done mindfully, there’s a whole different and healthy dynamic at play.

My basic recommendation: It’s important to be an advocate for your health by asking questions. But be careful whose advice you act on. Seek out those who know your individual situation and as well have a good idea of what’s what when it comes to wild misinterpretations about nutrition.

Support Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Green Mountain at Fox Run is fundraising for the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), an organization whose mission is to provide help and inspire hope to those affected by breast cancer. Help us reach our fundraising goal by liking Green Mountain’s page on Facebook.

For every Facebook “like” we receive during the month of October 2016, we will donate $1 to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, up to $500!

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About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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